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Winter is a looming crisis; effective action must be taken before it’s too late, RCEM says

9 September 2021

The latest Emergency Department performance figures for August 2021 published today by NHS England show the worst four-hour performance since records began, the worst performance for an August, and the fourth highest number of 12-hour stays ever.

The data show there were 1,342,250 attendances to Type 1 Emergency Departments in England in August 2021, a decrease of 6% compared to the previous month. Despite the decrease in attendances, four-hour performance deteriorated for the fifth consecutive month while the number of 12-hour stays increased for the fourth consecutive month.

In Type 1 Emergency Departments, 66.2% of patients were seen in four-hours or less, the worst four-hour performance on record and equal to over one-third of patients staying in a Type 1 Emergency Departments for over four-hours.

2,794 patients stayed in an Emergency Department for 12-hours or more, this is a 26% increase on the previous month and is the highest ever for August, it is also the fourth highest figure on record.

Data also show there were a total of 71,894 booked appointment attendances, with 34,787 of these booked at Type 1 Emergency Departments. Four-hour performance was at its lowest since records began, with 91.6% of all attendances seen within four-hours, and 82.5% of Type 1 attendances seen within four-hours.

Dr Katherine Henderson, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said:

“These figures come as no surprise, but they are no less appalling. The health service has been severely struggling in recent months and the College has been vocal in its warnings about this trajectory. We are now in autumn and the workforce is seriously apprehensive about this winter and what it might bring.

“The pandemic has highlighted stark inequalities; different parts of the country have been affected to different degrees of severity – and the continued impact and recovery has been harder in more deprived areas. In particular, the urgent and emergency care systems in the North East and North West are facing particularly extreme pressures. Average four-hour performance in the both the North East and North West is 63% while in the South East it is 73%. As part of levelling up, it is vital that these inequalities are properly addressed and not overlooked, and that support is given to those areas and to those patients that need it most.

“Departments also need clarity of focus in terms of priorities, and the priority must be long stays – this month’s fourth worst ever number of 12-hour stays shows the desperate need to improve the flow of patients through hospitals. But England continues to only publish 12-hour data measuring from decision to admit. Good statistics that accurately measure performance are essential in improving systems and publishing 12-hour data from time of arrival would show the true scale of the problem of long stays.

“The data also show that performance against booked appointments has sharply deteriorated. We must properly evaluate the efficacy of NHS 111 ‘talk first’ approach, so we can begin to improve it. There must be an adequate range of services available that NHS 111 to which call handlers are able to direct patients. Patients must be able to be directed to the right place for their care, and any patient booking an appointment at A&E through 111 must not be left waiting for a long period of time.

“At the same time there must be a renewed focus on the workforce. Our survey from July 2021 showed that half of all respondents said they were considering reducing their hours, while a large proportion are thinking of taking a career break or even changing specialty. The workforce cannot afford to lose any Emergency Department staff, we must do all we can to retain existing workers. To tackle this there must be a recruitment drive for Emergency Departments, in England 2,500 more consultants are needed – alongside sufficient numbers of nurses, trainees, allied health professionals and SAS doctors.

“To reduce crowding in hospitals, there must be investment in alternative care pathways including same day emergency care and discharge to assess, these will help prevent unnecessary admission.

“The vision for urgent and emergency care must be implemented and Emergency Medicine staff need to be assured that progress is being made. The College has laid out what needs to be done in RCEM CARES, and reports including; Summer to Recover and Retain, Recruit, Recover. Patient safety is at risk and on this trajectory, winter will be far worse than previously forecast – it is a looming crisis – and the health service is on the brink. The cost will be huge. Funding is welcome, but a comprehensive, joined-up plan, that must include short-term actions for the winter ahead together with a long-term strategy is vital. We are at a crucial point; Emergency Department performance continues to deteriorate while elective care waiting lists continue to rise steeply. The government must see the iceberg ahead and steer the health and social care service to safety.”

Notes to Editor

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