Covid Scotland: A&E waiting times in March were worst on record

Waiting times at accident-and-emergency (A&E) departments in Scotland were their worst on record in March, a new report from Public Health Scotland (PHS) has revealed.

The new figures indicate “dangerous overcrowding” at A&E departments, which is the result of a “broken health system in dire crisis”, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) said.

It comes as the NHS saw a 60 per cent increase in the number of days hospital beds were occupied unnecessarily, to almost 54,000 in March.

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And the number of planned operations which took place in March was 20,000, an increase on the previous month, but 20 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Opposition politicians called on the health secretary to take action to combat the pressures on the health service.

Scottish Conservative health spokesperson Dr Sandesh Gulhane accused the Government of “dreadful workforce planning” leading to long waits at A&E.

“This is completely unacceptable for patients, but it’s also really unfair on frontline staff who have been stretched beyond breaking point for months and feel responsible for a crisis that’s not of their making,” he said.

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie said: "Every passing month seems to bring a new record breaking low, but the SNP still keep failing to act.

The last time the A&E waiting time target was met in Scotland was July 2017 (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

"Lives are being lost because of people being left stranded at A&E waiting for urgent help. The lack of bed capacity in hospitals due to delayed discharge is having a direct impact on waiting times at A&E."

Liberal Democrat leader Alex-Cole-Hamilton said the new figures on NHS performance showed the SNP and Greens were “wrong to be putting top officials to work on independence”.

"Both patients and staff need new hope,” he said.

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Just 72 per cent of patients visiting A&E in March were dealt with in four hours, against a Scottish Government target of 95 per cent.

This is a drop on the previous record monthly figures, in October last year and February 2022, both at 74 per cent.

In March a total of 11,000 patients spent more than eight hours in an A&E department, while over 4,100 spent 12 hours there.

The Scottish Government target is for 95 per cent of patients to be admitted, transferred or discharged from A&E within four hours.

Weekly A&E figures improved slightly, with 70 per cent of patients dealt with in four hours in the week to April 24, compared to just 68 per cent the week before.

Dr John Thomson, vice-president of RCEM Scotland, said patients were being put at risk by the long delays.

"There are immense pressures on our health system,” he said. “Patient safety is compromised, staff are burnt out, ambulance services are severely struggling and emergency departments are dangerously over-crowded.

“During this difficult time, we commend all staff in our emergency departments for their resilience and hard work.

"These are unprecedented and extremely challenging circumstances, a result of a broken health system in dire crisis.”

Dr Thomson added: "We know morale is very low right now, and we know the challenges in providing effective care, but frontline staff across all grades continue to do their very best to keep patients safe.

“Opening 1,000 beds in the health system in Scotland and addressing the staffing crisis in social care is urgently needed to begin to tackle the current situation and to move patients appropriately and timeously through the system.

"This is an unsustainable situation, month-on-month performance deteriorates, and patients are coming to harm as staff face severe moral injury.”

New PHS figures also showed there were 53,600 days spent in hospital in March by people who no longer needed to be there, but could not be discharged due to a lack of alternative services.

This was a 58 per cent increase on the same month in 2021.

A hospitals census, carried out on the last Thursday of March, showed at that point there were 1,836 patients whose discharge had been delayed, a rise of 8 per cent from February’s total.

And a separate report revealed 22,000 operations were planned in March, the highest figure since the start of the Covid pandemic.

The number remains 20 per cent lower than the last month pre-pandemic, February 2020.

Of the 22,000 operations planned in March, 2,109 were cancelled.

Of these, 533 cancellations were made by the hospital for non-clinical or capacity reasons.

NHS Highland cancelled more than a fifth (22 per cent) of operations in March – the highest proportion of any health board.

The was “due to limited bed capacity, following a high number of Covid-19 patients”, according to PHS.

PHS said: “The number of operations that services are able to schedule continues to be impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson stressed the latest weekly A&E figures showed an improvement.

The spokesperson said: “We are also continuing to enhance capacity for Hospital at Home, and a range of other services which allow people to be treated at home rather than in hospital.

“The latest monthly figures published show Scotland continues to have the best performing A&Es in the UK, outperforming those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for over six years.”

In response to the PHS report on delayed discharges, a spokesperson for the Government said the “whole health and social care system is under severe pressure and staff continue to work tirelessly to provide safe care”.

An improvement programme, called Discharge without Delay, aims to improve discharge planning, they said.

They added: “Significant additional funding has been allocated to support social care, including £62 million to enhance care at home capacity; £48m to increase the hourly rate of pay; £40m to provide interim care arrangements; and £20m to enhance multi-disciplinary teams.”

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