Over 50 hospitals in England have been granted permission to ignore key waiting time targets owing to their extreme financial difficulties.
The decision is part of an overall package of measures which have been taken by NHS bosses following the £2.5 billion deficit accumulated by NHS trusts during the previous financial year.
Fines for missing targets in A&E, cancer and routine operations have been scrapped altogether as part of the initiative.
The decision to relax targets has already been strongly criticised by the Patients Association.
The chief executive of the organisation, Katherine Murphy, suggested that the initiative would ultimately have a negative impact on the efficacy of NHS operations.
“This is the slippery slope back to the bad old days of never-ending waiting times and uncertainty – with patients left endlessly on A&E trolleys and waiting for life-changing operations. Where is it all going to end?”
But regulators have set up what is described as a ‘failure regime’, with the most incompetent trusts in the country entered into this programme.
The government will place senior managers in hospitals struggling to deliver adequate service, in order to help produce plans to improve the situation.
Five trusts – Barts Health in London, Croydon Health Services, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, Norfolk and Norwich Hospitals and North Bristol – have already been informed that they will be parachuted into this system.
And another 13 trusts across the country are threatened with the same prospect if they fail to demonstrate significant and rapid improvement.
Commenting on the issue, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens indicated his belief that the current period is a critical one for the future of the NHS, and one at that will effectively make or break the health service.
“Precisely because the pressures across the NHS are real and growing, we need to use this year both to stabilise finances and kickstart the wider changes everyone can see are needed.”
But Nigel Edwards, of the Nuffield Trust think tank, believes that the measures taken will be rather trivial in and of themselves, and that more must be done in order to ensure that the health service is placed back on the appropriate footing.
“My big worry is what happens next. I fear that in order for hospitals to virtually eradicate their deficits the next steps could be a series of brutal service reductions and bed closures – which will shock an unprepared public.”
Many trusts and hospitals have been struggling to meet targets related to some of the most critical aspects of the healthcare process, and will welcome this decision.
Although it will inevitably draw some criticism, equally many healthcare experts have suggested that government targets have been too stringent.