Following intense scrutiny on A&E pressures this week, Jeremy Hunt has suggested that the 4-hour waiting time standard should be revised to remove non-urgent cases.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Hunt explained: ‘It is clear we need to have an honest discussion with the public about the purpose of A&E departments. There is nowhere outside the UK that commits to all patients that we will sort out any urgent health need within 4 hours. Only 4 other countries, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia and Canada, have similar national standards which are generally less stringent than ours.’
He went on: ‘This government is committed to maintaining and delivering that vital 4-hour commitment to patients. But since it was announced in 2000, nearly 9 million more people are using our A&Es, up to 30% of whom NHS England estimate do not need to be there, and the tide is continuing to rise.’
Mr Hunt concluded: ‘So if we are going to protect the 4-hour standard, we need to be clear it is a promise to sort out all urgent health problems within 4 hours, but not all health problems, however minor.’
Responding to Hunt's statement, NHS Providers Chief Executive, Chris Hopson, commented: ‘The health secretary has hinted at a new approach to monitoring and measuring performance in A&E…He is right that A&E services should be focused on those with the most urgent care needs. But patients are sometimes turning to A&E because other local health and social care services are not available to them.’
He continued: ‘Lack of capacity in social care and in GP services need to be considered alongside pressures on our A&E departments. We therefore feel the debate should go further, recognizing the clear gap between what the NHS is being asked to deliver and the funding available. Despite the commitment and hard work of frontline staff the NHS can no longer meet all the existing priorities and performance standards.’
The news comes as new figures were released on hospital A&E activity, showing an increase in attendance between 2014/15 and 2015/16 of 2.2% for the period from April to December, and 12.2% for January to March.