Health secretary hints at end to four-hour A&E target


Hospital corridor

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock has hinted the government could scrap the four-hour waiting time target in A&E.

Hospitals must aim to ensure 95% of patients are seen within the time limit, but in November, every major A&E unit in England missed the target.

The government has been accused of allowing treatment standards to slip.

But Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 5 Live ministers should be judged by “the right target” and a “clinically appropriate” one was needed.

Waiting time targets were put under review by Theresa May in 2018.

But Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said changing them “won’t magic away the problems in our overcrowded hospitals, with patients left on trolleys in corridors for hours and hours”.

Questioned by Nicky Campbell over the missed targets, Mr Hancock admitted there were “big challenges” in the NHS when it came to waiting times, arguing it was due to a rise in the number of people being treated in accident and emergency units.

He said the government was putting an additional £33.9bn into the service to help – read BBC Reality Check on this pledge here.

Asked whether the four-hour target would stay, he replied: “We will be judged by the right targets. Targets have to be clinically appropriate.”

Mr Hancock said there was a “problem” with the four-hour target as “the top way of measuring what’s going on in hospitals”.

“[For example], increasingly people can be treated on the day and able to go home [without staying overnight].

“That is much better for the patient, it’s also better for the NHS and yet the way that that’s counted… doesn’t work.”

The health secretary said it was “far better to have targets that are clinically appropriate, supported by clinicians so we’ve got clinicians looking at that”, adding: “It’s best if that is led by the doctors.”

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Image caption

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the targets he is judged on must be “right”

The review launched by Mrs May is yet to be completed, but an interim report was produced by NHS England’s national medical director, Prof Steve Powis, in March 2019.

He proposed three new targets: using the average waiting time as the main measure (instead of the 95% threshold); recording how long patients wait before being clinically assessed after they arrive; and checking how long the most critically ill patients wait before their treatment is completed.

Boris Johnson’s government has not committed to the recommendations.

‘Move the goalposts’

During Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue of growing waiting times, calling for “urgent action”.

Boris Johnson said the Labour leader was “right to signal delays people are facing” and they were “unacceptable”.

However, he did not refer to any changes in the targets, saying instead: “We will get those waiting lists down.”

Labour’s Mr Ashworth said: “Any review of targets must be transparent and based on watertight clinical evidence, otherwise patients will think Matt Hancock is trying to move the goalposts to avoid scrutiny of the government’s record.

“After years of austerity under the Tories, the government’s first priority must be to give the NHS the funding and staff it needs to end the waiting time crisis.”



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