However Hunt spins it, abandoning the four-hour A&E target is an admission of failure

The health secretary hates making concessions — but he just has


Jeremy Hunt hates backtracking. He’s spent years bullying junior doctors into accepting an exploitative and dangerous new contract, refusing to backtrack on his own rash promise to build a seven-day NHS.

Never mind that junior doctors were so concerned about patient safety that they called the first all-out strike in the history of the NHS. Never mind that Hunt’s ‘weekend effect’ claims aren’t backed up by the evidence and have been repudiated by experts. Never mind that the NHS is already facing an unprecedented cash crisis, and can’t possibly dramtically extend services in the way Hunt envisions.

Once the health secretary has made a commitment, however ill-considered or ideological, he refuses to budge.

This is vital context for yesterday’s announcement that the government is ditching the long-established four-hour A&E target, during what the Red Cross calls a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in NHS England.

By admitting that his department cannot meet its commitment, Hunt is admitting failure.

Sure, he’s tried to move the goalposts, claiming that the four-hour target should only apply to patients presenting with ‘real’ emergencies. The target ‘is a promise to sort out all urgent health problems within four hours, but not all health problems, however minor,’ he told the Commons.

But this is nothing more than shoddy sleight of hand. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine says that ’emergency care is in a state of crisis’, warning that:

“In our expert opinion, when an emergency department falls below 75% against the four-hour standard, it shows a significant level of overcrowding and begins to put safety at risk. Present figures suggest a substantial number of departments are falling below this level.”

These doctors know through long experience and detailed research what an A&E crisis looks like. If the only problem was patients presenting with minor complaints, they would identify that. Instead, they are sending the government a clear warning that patient safety is under threat in the NHS, as doctors report the worst conditions in their working lives.

In the last five years, Hunt has made it standard practice to ignore health professionals, no matter how much evidence they present, no matter how dire the warnings. Evidence, after all, gets in the way of his ideological crusade to dismantle the health service.

However, by backtracking on the four-hour target, the health secretary has blinked. He has acknowledged that the government cannot continue to promise the earth while refusing to pay for it.

Now how much worse do things have to get before he takes action to save lives?

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

See: As the father of a disabled child, I’ve watched the NHS crumble under Jeremy Hunt

See: Theresa May’s mental health ‘revolution’ has a money-shaped hole

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.