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New report exposes real number of A&E waits, as over 1,000 patients faced a 12-hour wait in A&E every day in 2021

14 June 2022

A new report by The Royal College of Emergency Medicine Tip of the Iceberg: 12-Hour Stays in the Emergency Department reveals that on average 1,047 patients waited 12-hours or more from their time of arrival every day in a major Emergency Department in 2021 in England, equalling a total of 381,991 patients experiencing these 12-hour waits in 2021.

There is a total of 124 NHS Trusts in England. The College received responses to a freedom of information request from 74 of the 124 NHS Trusts that were contacted. The figures above are only representative of 60% of NHS Trusts in England. The true total figure of 12-hour waits from time of arrival in major Emergency Departments in England in 2021 will be even higher.

These figures show the deep crisis facing the NHS and the Urgent and Emergency Care system. The alarming number of 12-hour waits are an indicator of the serious and dangerous levels of crowding occurring in Emergency Departments. Crowding is unsafe, inhumane, and undignified for patients, our previous report Crowding and its Consequences found that patients can come to associated harm and even death.

The NHS in England currently measures 12-hour waits from decision to admit (DTA). The Decision to Admit is the decision to admit a patient to a hospital bed made by a clinician. Measuring from decision to admit is a gross underrepresentation of the reality of patient waits, as many patients will have already waited for a long period in a busy Emergency Department before this decision is made.

12-hour DTA waits have been increasing substantially, so much so that in the first four months of 2022 alone (January – April 2022) there were a total of 79,610 12-hour DTA waits; nearly as many as the cumulative total of the 11 years since data collection began (82,746 12-hour DTA waits between August 2010 – December 2021). It is evident that while the pandemic has contributed to the current situation somewhat, long waiting times have clearly been rising for over a decade.

Our recent report Beds in the NHS found that 25,000 staffed beds have been lost since 2010/11 and this has contributed to the steady increase in long waiting times in Emergency Departments since 2010/11 as detailed in Tip of the Iceberg.

Commenting on the FOI findings, Dr Adrian Boyle, Vice President of The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said:

“These figures are staggering and show the critical state of the Urgent and Emergency Care system. They also make clear that measuring 12-hour waits from decision to admit masks the reality facing patients and staff. Clearly, it is misleading to measure 12-hour waits in this way, and it is detrimental to staff efforts to improve A&E waiting times.

“NHS England have previously promised to make 12-hour data measured from time of arrival in the Emergency Department public and publish it alongside monthly NHS performance figures. We are still waiting for them to fulfil their promise. We recently wrote to Amanda Pritchard, Chief Executive of NHS England, about this, questioning why the data has not yet been published and when it will be. We have not received a response. Until it is published the NHS cannot hope to drive meaningful change and improvement in Emergency Care. Publishing this data will bring about greater accountability, and help all stakeholders understand the extent of crowding, long stays, and corridor care.

“NHS England must publish 12-hour data from time of arrival as a matter of urgency, this is the first step towards meaningfully tackling this crisis. At present, we fear that the full scale of this crisis is either being ignored or inadvertently misunderstood by the government. To truly tackle the problem, you must understand the scale of the task at hand. This data should facilitate better understanding of the challenges facing Urgent and Emergency Care and the wider health system and allow us to take the steps towards tackling it.

“In the short-term, the government must set out a meaningful plan for social care that includes recruitment and investment in the social care workforce and paying a wage that values and reflects significance of their role. In the medium-term, the government must finally commit to publishing a fully funded long-term workforce plan that recruits new staff into the health service and includes measures to retain existing staff who are burned out and questioning their careers. Then will it be possible to open the 13,000 staffed beds required to drive meaningful improvement within the health service.

“The health service is failing, and failure to act will take it deeper into crisis and inevitably lead to another ‘worst winter on record’ and further patient harm. The government can talk about phantom new hospitals all it likes, but political unwillingness to tackle the deepest health crisis in NHS history costs; the cost is both deteriorating patient health and patient lives, and an undervalued workforce struggling to deliver.”

Notes to Editor

There is a total of 124 NHS Trusts in England, these Trusts collectively operate around 170 Type 1 (major) Emergency Departments (A&Es).

In February 2022 The Royal College contacted 118 NHS Trusts in England with Freedom of Information requests for information on delays in their Type 1 (major) Emergency Departments. The College asked for data from each month of 2021 (January – December inclusive).

As of April 2022, RCEM received responses from 74 out of the 118 NHS Trusts the College contacted, representing 104 Type 1 (major) Emergency Departments across England. The College received data in response to the following questions:

  • How many patients spent 6 hours or more in the emergency department in your Trust from the time of arrival?
  • How many patients spent 8 hours or more in the emergency department in your Trust from the time of arrival?
  • How many patients spent 12 hours or more in the emergency department in your Trust from the time of arrival?
  • What percentage of type 1 attendances spent 12 hours or more in the emergency department from time of arrival?

N.B. Some sites indicated less than 5 patients experienced delays in their metrics – these were not included in our totals.

Tip of the Iceberg: 12-Hour Stays in the Emergency Department:

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