NHS crisis: A&E waits spiral to worst ever level AGAIN

February was the ‘toughest month EVER for the NHS’: A&E waits spiral to worst record low AGAIN as cancer treatment targets are missed for 37th month running, ‘shameful’ statistics show

  • More people than ever are waiting more than four hours to be treated in A&E 
  • People waiting a month for treatment after cancer diagnosis is at all-time high 
  • Record numbers of people have to wait two months or more for cancer therapy
  • Experts warn the NHS is crippling under pressure despite a ‘mild’ winter 

A&E waiting times have hit a new all-time low as the NHS has posted its worst ever figures for the second month in a row.

February was the ‘toughest month to date’ for the ‘overwhelmed’ health service, NHS bodies admitted today as figures show the dire state of waiting times in England.

Only 84.2 per cent of patients were seen within the NHS’s four-hour waiting limit in February – a further drop from the lowest ever 84.4 per cent in January.

The falling figure comes in the same week as the health service announced plans it could use to replace the four-hour benchmark it has failed to meet since 2015.

Other ‘shameful’ statistics show waits for cancer treatment are longer than ever, with record numbers of people waiting more than a month to start therapy.

And the NHS missed its target to treat people within two months of a doctor’s referral for the 37th month in a row.

The waiting list for all types of treatment has risen to 4.16million people – second only to 4.18m in October last year.

More than 220,000 of these people have been waiting for six months or more, and 36,000 of them for at least nine months.

NHS A&E departments try to see 95 per cent of their patients within four hours but the figure is now at its lowest ever level – just 84.2 per cent

The drop in people being seen within four hours at A&E means more than 15 per cent of patients – more than 70,000 people – waited longer than that in February. 

Only two months of A&E figures have been published so far this year and both have been record-breakingly bad.

The number of patients A&E departments have treated within the four-hour time limit was 6.2 per cent higher than it was last February, yet hospitals’ performance is still falling. 

And now cancer patients have been added to the mix – a higher proportion than ever (4.6 per cent) are waiting at least a month to have their first treatment after diagnosis.

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January figures showed there are also a record number of people (23.8 per cent) waiting for two months or more after an urgent referral from their doctor. 

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘For hospitals to report the worst ever A&E four-hour waits in the same week NHS England announced plans to abandon the target exposes the reality of nine years of austerity, understaffing and mismanagement of our NHS.

‘It’s especially shameful that we have also seen the worst performance on record for patients to be seen for cancer treatment within two months.


Almost one in four patients with cancer do not start treatment on time – the worst performance on record, today’s figures show. 

And the health service is failing to hit six out of its eight cancer targets, according to The King’s Fund think-tank.

At least 85 per cent of patients are meant to start cancer treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral, but in January only 76.2 per cent of people did so.

This target has now been missed for 37 months in a row.  

And in January 1,250 people had to wait for more than a month to start treatment after they had already been diagnosed and told they needed therapy.

This represented 4.6 per cent of patients and made it the first month ever the health service had breached its 4 per cent maximum.

Professor John Appleby, of the Nuffield Trust think-tank said: ‘In January almost a quarter of cancer patients waited longer than two months to start treatment following a GP urgent referral, which is a sharp and concerning spike compared to previous months. 

‘These measures show the sheer weight of pressure that NHS staff are facing on a daily basis and will understandably worry patients at a very difficult time.’

Macmillan Cancer Support’s Dr Fran Woodward added: ‘More than 127,000 people have been left waiting too long to start vital treatment throughout [the past five years]. 

‘Behind the numbers are real people who tell us how delays cause real anxiety for them and their loved ones at a time when they are already trying to deal with the many worries cancer is throwing their way.’

‘Behind each of these statistics is a patient waiting longer in pain and anguish.’

The NHS is now failing on six out of its eight cancer waiting time targets, The King’s Fund revealed.

Deborah Ward, senior analyst at the think-tank said: ‘Despite a mild winter, today’s figures reveal a hidden crisis in hospitals up and down the country.

‘We must not become immune to the reality that behind today’s figures are stories of people with urgent medical needs waiting too long to be treated. 

‘Without enough staff and resources to care for patients, targets both new and old will continue to be missed.’

Hundreds of thousands of people were directly affected by long waits in February.

A total of 308,424 A&E visits lasted longer than four hours before the patient was admitted or discharged.

Some 3,321 people who started cancer treatment that month had already been waiting for at least two months since their GP urgently referred them to a hospital.

And 1,250 people starting cancer therapy had waited more than a month since they were told they needed treating for the disease – this number was almost double the previous month and rose above 1,000 for the first time ever.

The NHS’s target of beginning treatment in patients within 62 days of them being referred to a hospital has now not been met for 37 consecutive months. It was first breached in January 2014.

Macmillan Cancer Support’s Dr Fran Woodard said: ‘More than 127,000 people have been left waiting too long to start vital treatment [since 2014]. 

‘Behind the numbers are real people who tell us how delays cause real anxiety for them and their loved ones at a time when they are already trying to deal with the many worries cancer is throwing their way.’

Parts of the NHS itself have admitted the health service is crumbling under pressure, saying it is ‘overwhelmed’ and that February was the ‘toughest month to date’.

NHS Providers, a trade association for hospital trusts, and the NHS Confederation, which represents leaders, both praised staff but said they were under crippling strain.

‘The resilience and dedication shown by staff to patient care throughout a very sustained period of pressure and demand is extraordinary,’ said NHS Providers’s Miriam Deakin.

‘But there is only so much that trusts can do when resources are already stretched to breaking point.’

The organisation’s website posted its comment under the heading ‘Toughest month to date for NHS as cancer and A&E standards fall’. 

Nick Ville, director of policy at the NHS Confederation added: ‘These statistics are further proof that, despite treating more patients than ever before, the NHS is being overwhelmed. 

‘NHS staff are being placed under considerable pressure and everyone knows this cannot go on.’ 


NHS England this week began the process of scrapping the four-hour maximum A&E wait target to replace it with new ones. 

In place of its infamous four-hour target, the NHS is now trialling seeing the most seriously ill patients – strokes and heart attacks, for example – within one hour.

Those with less serious conditions, meanwhile, will have to wait longer, and new targets will be drawn up after pilots at around a dozen hospitals later this year. 

Having failed to hit the four-hour benchmark for nearly four years in a row – it was last met in July 2015 – the NHS is now rewriting its own goals.

‘Now is the right time to look again at the old targets,’ the NHS’s medical director said. 

This is despite past warnings from emergency medicine experts that scrapping the target could put patient safety at risk. 

In January, Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) said: ‘Scrapping the four-hour target will have a near-catastrophic impact on patient safety in many emergency departments that are already struggling to deliver safe patient care in a wider system that is failing badly.’

Removing the target could wipe the NHS’s slate clean in one respect, making A&E data for the past 15 years difficult to compare with how hospitals perform in future.

And one branch of the health service, NHS Providers, has already admitted it may look like bosses are ‘moving the goalposts’.

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