Health bosses have been accused of trying to spin the NHS out of crisis this winter by banning hospitals from declaring “major incidents” and delaying the publication of key waiting-time figures.
Last week, as MPs debated whether to authorise bombing raids in Syria, health officials announced that the NHS would reduce the publication of weekly performance indicators which give a snapshot of the state of the health service.
The weekly updates will no longer include figures on A&E waiting times, ambulance delays outside hospitals, last-minute cancellation of operations, and the number of patients left on trolleys for longer than four hours. Instead officials will publish the numbers monthly, subject to a six-week delay.
Health bosses have also ordered NHS trusts not to use the term “major incident” if they become unable to cope with patient numbers this winter. The alert signals that pressure on a hospital is so great that it has had to call in extra staff or instruct patients to avoid A&E. Last January, at least 14 trusts in England declared major incidents.
NHS England has told trusts only to use the words “major incident” if a “formal multi-agency response” involving other organisations is required, such as a fire, flood or outbreak of infectious disease. Otherwise they should use the phrase “internal significant incident”.
Under the new guidance, none of the major incidents declared last winter, signalling the worst winter crisis in the NHS for 15 years, might have come to public attention.
“This is a clear attempt by the NHS to spin itself out of crisis,” Roger Goss of Patient Concern, told The Sunday Telegraph. “So much for all the talk of openness and transparency.”
Last winter Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, suffered a series of damaging headlines about A&E waiting times and ambulance queues.