In each of the last four years the arrival of a new year has heralded new challenges in A&E departments. This year they are particularly acute. Ambulance response times are getting longer, patients are waiting on trolleys to be admitted, and almost a million people have not been treated within the NHS target of four hours. Waiting times are at their highest for a decade.
Last week in Parliament, I asked Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt what he was doing to improve ambulance response times. He claimed that his government's top-down reorganisation of the NHS has made the NHS better equipped to deal with winter pressures than ever before.
The facts tell a different story.
For 78 consecutive weeks hospital A&E departments in England have failed to meet the NHS target to treat 95% of patients within four hours. In Sunderland Royal only 85.1% were treated within four hours for the week ending January 11. This is despite the fact that in 2010 ministers lowered the 98% target introduced by the previous Labour government.
In our region, the North East Ambulance Trust warned that it was under severe pressure caused by delayed ambulance turnaround times at hospitals.
Deep cuts to social care under this government have also resulted in vulnerable and elderly people staying in hospital for longer. The increased pressure for beds in other parts of the hospital has had a knock on effect on A&E.
At the same time too many people are unable to get an appointment to see their GP. In the north east alone this has directly led to nearly 55,000 turning up at A&E instead. There is also growing concern that the NHS111 service is making matters worse. Doctors say that too many patients are being sent to A&E when they could be treated elsewhere.
Welcome advances in medicine and care standards will mean greater numbers of elderly people using the NHS over the coming decades. We need to equip the NHS to cope with these demographic challenges by investing in more front-line workers, more carers and a higher standard of care.
Labour’s £2.5 billion ‘Time to Care Fund’ will support 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 GPs, 5,000 more care workers and 3,000 more midwives. It will be funded by a mansion tax on properties worth £2 million or more, a crackdown on tax avoidance and a levy on tobacco companies. We will also guarantee a GP appointment within 48 hours and a maximum one-week wait for cancer tests, and repeal the worst parts of the government's disastrous NHS changes. Only Labour will ensure that the NHS is protected for the future.