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NHS winter data shows 150,000 waited half an hour outside A&E

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By Sarah Marsh and Pamela Duncan

Hospitals struggling to keep to 15-minute wait limit for emergency department patients

Almost 150,000 patients in England have waited more than 30 minutes before being admitted to A&E this winter, according to NHS figures.

Data from the end of November to 11 February showed the number of people waiting half an hour or longer was 149,214, while a further 35,535 people waited more than an hour.

Hospitals are struggling to adhere to strict rules put in place this winter by NHS England and NHS Improvement, which say patients must wait no longer than 15 minutes.

The latest figures on hospital performance showed bed occupancy remained high, at 95% for general and acute care beds and 85.5% for adult critical care beds. But doctors have warned that official occupancy bed data is “misleading” and the reality is very different.

Dr Nick Scriven, the president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “NHS England suggests that overall bed occupancy figures have eased a little, but the reality on the frontline is very different. The easing really only reflects that beds in surgical units are empty at midnight when the official data is counted.”

Scriven said moving patients from emergency departments to wards that may or may not have a free bed “merely hides suffering and indignity from official gaze”. From the emergency department perspective, he said “this eases figures and jams, but it is opposite of caring, compassionate and safe care”.

Acute medicine deals with the immediate and early treatment of adult patients with a variety of medical conditions, who present to hospital as emergencies. It receives the majority of patients admitted from A&E and helps maintain the flow of patients through emergency departments to avoid exit block, the term used when patients cannot be moved into a hospital bed.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “Bed figures are supplied by individual hospitals themselves so this is the accurate position they are reporting, on exactly the same basis as they always have. Dr Scriven is also wrong to claim that these bed occupancies are measured at midnight as NHS Improvement’s statistics are actually gathered at 8am each day. It is important that the NHS makes decisions based on the facts rather than anecdotal evidence.”

Dr Rob Findlay, an expert in NHS performance, said: “NHS England says … that general and acute bed occupancy should be no higher than 92%. The medical royal colleges say 85% … I don’t know what the accepted safe limits are for critical care bed occupancy, but [the figures] also look worryingly high to me.”

Scriven warned that data for next week should show a re-escalation of pressure. “As we enter the seventh week of sustained acute medical pressure, the system remains under great stress,” he said.

“The influenza surge may have peaked, but is still a highly significant problem and, on top of that, the last seven days have seen the first real continuous period of cold weather since Christmas … This has caused a re-escalation in pressure, which will not be seen in figures until this time next week.”

Figures from this week showed that a spike in cases of norovirus resulted in more than 800 hospital beds a day being closed last week. There were 30 instances where ambulances had to divert to other A&E units, compared with 36 in the previous week.

The latest figures also show a rise in the number of calls to the non-emergency NHS 111 number, with 335,900 in the week ending 11 February, up 18.3% year on year.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “The sad reality is that this winter crisis was entirely predictable and avoidable, but Tory ministers have point blank refused to give the NHS and social care the investment required.”