NHS nurse protests for better pay and conditions in central London, June (Picture: Gary Knight)

Long waits at hospital A&E departments are causing thousands of deaths a year—and the longer you wait to be seen, the more likely you are to die in the days and weeks after you leave.

That’s the shocking conclusion of an analysis by the Financial Times (FT) newspaper, which looked at figures for “excess deaths” for the last three years. Excess deaths are the number of people that die above the average of previous years. Most analysts have blamed the recent rise in this figure directly on Covid.

Between July and December 2021, England recorded 24,000 more deaths than in a typical year. But only two-thirds of these could be linked to Covid infections. This year less than half of the 10,000 excess deaths since May were Covid-related

The two periods taken together show that there were over 12,000 additional, non-Covid deaths. How can we explain such a large number of people dying that we would not have expected to?

“It is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the excess is linked to the failure to address the failings of a chronically under-resourced and overburdened system,” the paper said last week.

A recent report by the British Medical Journal backs up the FT’s claim. It shows that the risk of death in the month after going to A&E was 16 percent higher for those that waited more than 12 hours, compared to those seen within four. 

Journalists combined the journal’s figures with those obtained earlier by the Independent newspaper, which showed that almost 700,000 people waited in A&E for more than 12 hours in the first seven months of 2022. They were then able to estimate how many extra deaths may be the result of the growing A&E crisis.

“By my calculation, June’s waiting times alone are likely to have resulted in more than 2,000 additional deaths,” said the FT.

That’s a conclusion that government ministers have desperately tried to hide by insisting they have “thrown money” at the health service to no avail.

Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss this week said that if she were prime minister money earmarked for the NHS would be directed elsewhere. And, she blamed managers for the health service’s problems, saying, “The fact is quite a lot of [money] has gone into the NHS… but what people who work in the NHS tell me is the problem is the number of layers in the organisation they go through to get things done.”

But middle-level NHS managers are not to blame for this crisis. You simply cannot run an organisation the size of the health service without a large administrative apparatus. It’s the lack of beds and staff that is to blame for the crisis.

In order to function, casualty departments have to be able to send patients that need immediate treatment to hospital wards. But the number of beds has been cut systematically over the last decade.

There are growing numbers of people in hospitals that cannot be discharged because no care home can take them, or social care in the community can no longer cope.

One in seven beds in English hospitals is now occupied by a patient that no longer needs hospital treatment by has not yet been discharged. This problem can only get worse.

The number of people over 70 years old that live with multiple long-term health conditions has risen by more than 50 percent since 2010. But spending on social care has flatlined just as needs are growing.

That means the deepening crisis in healthcare cannot be fixed without a plan for both the NHS and all forms of social care.

It’s also a reason why the battle over pay in the NHS is now so vital. Without a huge increase in the numbers of staff, there can be no more beds and the downward spiral can only continue.

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