The NHS is heading for one of its “bleakest” ever winters, and 100,000 people could end up stuck on trolleys waiting for hospital beds, experts have said.
New figures from NHS England show that A&E performance is at its worst-ever level while the health service has also missed a raft of other targets, including how long people wait to start planned treatment and waits for cancer care.
The data comes as the Royal College of Surgeons called on political leaders to keep the 18-week wait for planned treatment – which is currently under review and could be scrapped.
The new NHS data shows that one in six patients waited longer than four hours in A&E in England during October – the worst-ever performance since the four-hour target was introduced in 2004.
Some 83.6% of patients arriving at A&E were treated or admitted in four hours.
The target is 95% but it has not been met since July 2015.
The data also showed that in September, 84.8% of patients started treatment within 18 weeks against a target of 92% – a continued decline in performance.
The target was last met in February 2016.
The target to start cancer treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral is also being missed. Some 76.9% of cancer patients started treatment in 62 days in September, below the 85% target.
Overall, more than 4.4 million patients are on the waiting list.
Nuffield Trust chief economist, Professor John Appleby, said: “These figures show the next government will immediately be faced with one of the bleakest winters in the NHS’s history.”
Prof Appleby added: “We have many months to go until seasonal pressures really hit the NHS, but October has already seen an unprecedented slump with performance against the main A&E target worse than ever.
“The health service is seeing far more patients, yet one in six is now waiting more than four hours in A&E. If the usual trends continue after Christmas, that would head towards one in five.
“Meanwhile the number of people waiting on trolleys in corridors because no beds are available has already hit 80,000 – something we have only seen before in the very coldest part of the year.
“If this trend keeps going, I fear we could see 100,000 people stuck on trolleys this coming January.
“As the election promises roll in, we should be under no illusion about the money, staff and time it will take to turn this situation around.”
Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “Under Boris Johnson the NHS is in crisis and we’re heading for a winter of abject misery for patients.
“Our A&Es are overwhelmed, more so than ever. In every community there’s an ever growing queue of people waiting for treatment.”
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman, Luciana Berger, said: “This is a damning indictment of the Conservatives’ dismal record on the NHS.”
An NHS spokesman said: “These figures show that while NHS staff are looking after a markedly higher number of older and sicker patients, a higher number of patients are being seen quickly than a year ago.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “These figures show just how important it is that we stop Jeremy Corbyn.
“We are giving the biggest cash boost ever to our NHS, but Corbyn’s chaotic policies will put that at risk.”
In March, NHS England announced proposals to scrap the key targets for patients to be seen in A&E within four hours, or to receive an operation within 18 weeks.
Under new targets being piloted, those patients with the most serious conditions such as heart attacks, strokes and sepsis, would receive rapid treatment within an hour, while people with more minor conditions can expect to wait longer in A&E.
Data would be published on how long patients spend on average in A&E and the 18-week target would be replaced by an average marker of the time it takes to start treatment.
The Royal College of Surgeons and the charity Versus Arthritis called on party leaders to safeguard the 18-week target.
Writing to all party leaders, Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons and Liam O’Toole, chief executive of Versus Arthritis, said: “Despite being a statutory requirement, the 18-week standard has increasingly been forgotten.”
Prof Alderson added: “It just isn’t acceptable for so many people to languish on these lists, with deteriorating physical and mental health as they wait for treatment.”
The Society for Acute Medicine said acute and emergency care in the NHS is “imploding” before the expected winter crisis hits.