The Coalition government will leave office with the NHS in the red for the first time in a decade – and with waiting times at their highest in years, independent experts have said.
In a summary of NHS performance in England under the Coalition, the King’s Fund think-tank said the service was now under significant strain, with a “real risk” that patient care would suffer and waiting times would rise still further in the coming year.
Hospitals and other providers are heading for an overspend of more than £800m by the end of this financial year, tipping the NHS as a whole into deficit, the King’s Fund said.
This would be the first time the health service has overspent since 2005/06. “That’s got to be paid by somebody,” said chief economist John Appleby. “The Treasury could pick up the tab, but it’s likely the NHS is going to have to find the money in future years. It’s fairly depressing.”
Around half of all hospitals have run up a deficit, many because of heavy spending on new staff – including expensive agency nurses and doctors – to improve safety in the wake of the Mid Staffordshire report. However, in three key areas – A&E, cancer treatment and the 18-week wait from GP referral to starting specialist treatment – the NHS is now falling behind its targets.
Mr Appleby said it had become the norm for many A&E departments to miss the goal of treating 95 per cent of patients in less than four hours. With finances under pressure and staffing costs already high, there are fears hospitals cannot do any more to bring down waiting times.
“We’re not in a great position on waiting times,” said Mr Appleby. “My speculation would be that with the system under pressure financially, next year we’re going to see some real problems with waiting times. That’s got to be addressed.”