The claim

“Waiting times are rising”
Ed Miliband MP, Prime Minister’s Questions, May 11, 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

Ever since Tony Blair declared in 1997 there was a fortnight to save the NHS, Labour has won successive elections by convincing the public the Conservatives can’t be trusted to run the health service.

Having lost ground to the Tories on this in the run up to last year’s general election, Labour now feels the tide is turning in its favour again.

The botched NHS reforms announced by David Cameron have given Labour a chance to regain the initiative.

So it was no surprise to hear Ed Miliband today lay into the Prime Minister over rising waiting times.

FactCheck found he’d slipped up last month, so has he learnt his lesson?

The analysis

David Cameron demanded an apology from the opposition leader today for misleading the Commons with the claim that NHS waiting times have risen month on month.

As FactCheck found a fortnight ago, Mr Cameron’s figures were right. From January to February, the median wait (the time spent waiting by 50 per cent of patients on waiting lists) for non-admitted patients – or ‘outpatients’ – dropped from 4.8 weeks to 3.5 weeks. For admitted patients the median wait also dropped from 9.1 to 9 weeks month-on-month.

While Mr Miliband was careful not to repeat his slip up, temperatures rose as he refused to back down. “No Mr Speaker, waiting times are rising,” he said.

So who’s right?

Well, the coalition has changed the goal posts.

Mr Miliband is still quoting the old Labour 18 week target; while the coalition looks at the median wait across the board.

The Labour government’s target was to make sure 90 per cent of patients were treated within 18 weeks of referral to their hospital from their GP.

But this was scrapped by the coalition last June – along with other carrot and stick targets that they said had “no clinical justification”.

So if we stick with the coalition preferred measure of the median wait, here are some comparables provided by the King’s Fund:

December 2009 8 weeks        December 2010 8.2 weeks

January 2010 9.2 weeks         January 2011 9.5 weeks

February 2010 9.5 weeks       February 2011 9.4 weeks

(DoH points out that the King’s Fund does not take account of patients who decline two offers of admission, to allow them to go on holiday for example. But the difference is so small as to be insignificant).

Andrew Lansley has been chided for following George Osborne’s example in “blaming the snow”, but these figures prove he has a point. The caveat with looking at either monthly or year-on-year figures, is that they are hugely seasonal and weather-dependent.

John Appleby from the King’s Fund agrees that quoting month-on-month figures is somewhat futile.  “There are very strong seasonal trends,” he told FactCheck. “Over the year waiting times have gone up and they’ve gone down.”

But overall, Mr Appleby says there is a “very slight upward trend” in the median figures.

Meanwhile by Labour’s definition – their old target was missed in February. Based on DoH statistics, 89 per cent of patients were seen within 18 weeks of referral in February 2011. That’s down from 91.9 per cent in February 2010.

Mr Appleby said in this instance there is definitely an upward trend.

Cathy Newman’s verdict

Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are not being wholly straight with the public.

Some months, for example in the winter, there are more people waiting for operations than others, so using month on month figures as David Cameron did is a bit misleading.

Then again, by looking only at those who are waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment, the Labour leader is using a target which has been scrapped by the coalition government. So that’s not the best measure either.

FactCheck’s preferred figures – comparing one month this year with the same month last year – come from the King’s Fund. Those show a slight upward trend in waiting times.

Although it’s not clear enough to be conclusive yet, in a few months’ time David Cameron may well find it harder to defend his stewardship of the NHS.

The analysis by Emma Thelwell

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Category: Conservatives, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Labour, NHS
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