Jeremy Hunt was accused by Labour of watering down the four-hour A&E waiting time target after he told MPs that only those with urgent health problems should be expected to be seen within that period.
The health secretary told the Commons that up to 30% of people attending A&E were not urgent cases, as he made the case that only those with genuine emergency conditions should be included in the figures. He also said hospitals in distress would be allowed to cancel outpatient appointments, as he warned of “further challenges” ahead with cold weather on the way this weekend.
Hunt said: “This government is committed to maintaining and delivering that vital four-hour commitment to patients. But since it was announced in 2000 there are nearly 9 million more visits to our A&Es, up to 30% of whom NHS England estimate do not need to be there. And the tide is continuing to rise. So, if we are to protect our four-hour standard, we need to be clear it is a promise to sort out all urgent health problems within four hours, but not all health problems, however minor.”
He also said some areas might have to suspend non-urgent outpatient appointments and release GPs to support urgent care work.
Hunt said: “Far from watering down the target, I have recommitted the government to the four-hour target.”
His comments were immediately criticised by Labour, which accused him of being in denial about the scale of problems in the NHS, and urged the government to “get a grip”.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Is he now really telling patients that rather than trying to hit the four-hour target, the government is now rewriting and downgrading it?”
He added: “Hospital bosses, council leaders, patient groups, MPs from across the House urged the chancellor to give the NHS and social care extra money in the autumn statement. Those requests fell on deaf ears and we are now seeing the dismal consequences. NHS staff deserve better. Patients deserve better. The government needs to do better.”
Ben Bradshaw, the former Labour cabinet minister, also said it was a “significant watering-down” of the A&E four-hour target.
Norman Lamb, the Lib Dems’ health spokesman, said it was a “slippery slope towards the downgrading of standards of care across the NHS”. He said: “If the health secretary thinks it is acceptable for patients to be left waiting indefinitely in A&Es, or that this is a solution to the severe pressures facing the NHS, then he is sorely mistaken.”
Concerns about A&E departments have been mounting over the last week, with the British Red Cross saying there has been a humanitarian crisis in some areas.
Mike Adamson, the chief executive of the British Red Cross, reiterated his charity’s description of the situation on Monday, saying his staff were helping out in 20 A&E departments. “We see people discharged from hospital to chaotic situations at home, falling and not being found for hours, not being washed because there is no carer to help them,” he wrote in an article for the Times.
“These are people in crisis and in recent weeks we have started talking about this as a humanitarian crisis. We don’t say this lightly and we have a duty to say it,” he said.
Hunt has rejected the description, saying most hospitals are coping better this winter than they did last year.
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain about reports of emergency patients being kept on trolleys for hours due to a lack of available beds, Hunt said: “Well, these problems are totally unacceptable. This is the most difficult time for the NHS in the year. It always is very difficult after the Christmas period when GP surgeries are not open over the actual days of Christmas and then they reopen and a lot of people get sent to hospital.”
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