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NHS faces 'eternal winter' with A&E waiting time figures worst since records began

Record waiting times could mean an 'eternal winter' for the NHS. Credit: PA

A&E departments in England have recorded the worst waiting times since records began with figures showing that 2017/18 was the worst on record.

In March, a higher percentage of patients than ever had to wait four hours or more to be seen upon arrival at NHS A&E wards.

How bad were the figures?

750,000
The number of patients in March who had to be kept on trolleys for up to 12 hours waiting for a bed.
15,000
The increase in admissions to A&E compared to last year.
84.6%
The number of patients seen within four hours overall.
76.4%
Patients at major A&E departments treated within the four-hour target.

The figures, released by NHS England, show 2017/18 to be the worst performing year since records began in 2003/2004.

The figures also showed the number of patients waiting more for a year for treatment went over 2,000 for the first time since August 2012.

Some 87.9% of patients started planned treatment within 18 weeks meaning the 92% target has now not been met in two years.

It comes as hospitals struggled with demand under a 'winter crisis' with cold weather, including heavy snow, and high rates of flu and norovirus.

Why is the winter crisis heading into the summer?

Earlier this month, doctors warned that the winter crisis could continue into the summer.

Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said the figures "are the clearest indication yet of the eternal winter we now face in the NHS".

Dr Scriven said hospitals may continue to postpone planned procedures to clear the backlog of cancelled operations and priorities patients needing emergency care.

He said: "These stark figures - including a further drop in A&E performance and 5,000 delayed patient transfers - are the clearest indication yet of the eternal winter we now face in the NHS, and this should be a turning point in how we approach all planning from now on.

"As we settle into spring, hospitals remain under immense pressure, and I am unsure how on earth we are going to catch up with elective surgery given some non-urgent operations continue to be cancelled in parts of the country."

Ian Dalton of NHS Improvement said staff should be applauded for tackling the winter pressures. Credit: PA

Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said "what began as a 'winter crisis' in the NHS is now becoming entrenched".

She said it was "shameful" that more than 75,000 patients who arrived at A&E had to be kept on trolleys for up to 12 hours while they waited for a bed last month, with more than 850 stuck on trolleys for longer than 12 hours.

"We need urgent answers as to why it has more than trebled in the last year," she added.

2017/18 was the worst performing year since records began. Credit: PA

The chief executive of NHS Improvement, Ian Dalton, said the statistics "highlight the mammoth pressures facing the NHS this winter, which have continued into March", adding that they show how much staff are to be applauded.

"They have overseen a 5% reduction in the number of patients facing delays to leave hospital compared to last year and they have done this while facing the highest number of emergency admissions seen since records began - 15,000 more patients admitted as emergencies this March compared to last year," he added.

An NHS England spokesman said: "As expected, these figures for a month ago confirm what was widely reported at the time, namely that during March the NHS continued to experience severe winter pressures."