Government trying to hide scale of NHS winter crisis

LABOUR leader Jeremy Corbyn and health campaigners have accused the Government of reducing the number of bulletins on the state of the NHS.

These bulletins, which have been issued weekly, included full details on the state of how the NHS has been working and achieving targets set under the previous Labour government.

The Department of Health announced its decision to cut the number of these bulletins to just one a month — at the same time as MPs were in the House debating on whether to bomb Syria.

And the content of the bulletins will be reduced. They will no longer include Accident and Emergency (A&E) waiting times, the numbers of last-minute cancelled operations, the number of patients left waiting on trolleys for more than four hours and ambulances kept waiting outside hospitals to hand over their patients.

The change comes after ministers admitted that the official reporting period for the winter had been shortened by a month — further limiting what the public can find out about growing problems in the NHS.

Over the past two years, “winter” ran from the start of November until the end of March. But in response to a parliamentary question, Public Health minister Jane Ellison admitted that the reporting period this year will end a month earlier.

The move comes amidst growing Government fears that this winter crisis to set to be worse than at any time in the past five years because of staff shortages caused by a clampdown on expensive agency staff.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Independent that the Government is “launching an NHS news blackout” to keep the public in the dark. And he demanded that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt reinstate the full weekly bulletins at once.

He added: “We’ve a crisis in A&E, hospital wards understaffed and people waiting longer and longer — and the Tory response is to try and stop people finding out. These deeply cynical attempts to hide the truth reveal one thing: the Tories are failing patients.”

Last winter the Government suffered a series of headlines about delayed operations, A&E waiting times and ambulance delays — all based on the weekly figures.

Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander said there was “no justification for keeping patients in the dark about how their local health services are performing”.

She has written to Hunt to demand that the weekly figures be reinstated. One Tory MP admitted the changes were likely to have been introduced to avoid damaging headlines. The MP said that the NHS was beginning to miss waiting times “on a routine basis” and added: “I suspect there’s a degree of wanting to weaken scrutiny from a political perspective... A&E will struggle to hit its targets.”

Health experts and patient groups have joined Labour in voicing their fury at the move. Katherine Murphy of the Patients Association said that the public had a right to know if hospitals were in danger.

“There are now many operations being cancelled on a daily basis with no date given for when the operation will take place. This is leaving patients in pain and discomfort, and increasing the chances of their condition getting worse.

“The Government needs to address this serious patient safety issue and this information needs to be in the public domain.”

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said: “It’s important... for areas of the system where excessive pressure is being felt to become clear quickly. I am worried that only publishing figures monthly on indicators like waits in A&E and cancelled operations won’t provide this clarity quickly enough.”

John Appleby, chief economist at the King’s Fund, said: “The change appears to undermine the Government’s message about increasing transparency and making better use of data, and will reduce understanding across the health system about the impact of winter pressures.”