That is why we have seen A&E waiting times in England the best in two years.
Rishi Sunak told Prime Minister’s questions on 19 July that A&E waiting times in England were the “best in two years”.
There are lots of different performance figures for accident and emergency departments in England, so it is not clear exactly what data Mr Sunak was referring to, and Downing Street has not responded to our request for comment.
But health experts have told Full Fact that Mr Sunak’s claim is “difficult to square” with the published data. This data shows that while there have been improvements in performance in recent months, June 2023 was not the best month in the last 24.
Ministers must provide evidence for what they say, and ensure that any statistics and data they rely on to back up their claims are provided publicly in accordance with the Code of Practice for Statistics or relevant guidance. The OSR also recommends that when data is quoted publicly it should be “published in an accessible form”.
Honesty in public debate matters
You can help us take action – and get our regular free email
The A&E waiting times target
NHS England has a target to admit, transfer, or discharge 95% of accident and emergency visits within four hours of arrival. This standard has not been met since 2015.
The most recent NHS England data when Mr Sunak made his claim, shows that 73.3% of patients attending A&E across England were seen within four hours in June, which was up from 72.1% in the same month the previous year, but lower than in April or May 2023. Performance on this measure was also higher throughout 2021.
This suggests that there has been an improvement in recent months from a record low of 65% in December last year, but that levels have returned to where they were around the first half of 2022.
This data counts individual attendances to A&E, so if a patient goes more than once within a month for unplanned follow up or a different condition then they will be recorded in the data each time.
The number of A&E patients waiting for a hospital bed
The number of patients waiting more than four or 12 hours for a hospital bed after the decision to admit them is another metric often scrutinised in the media.
The latest data shows that the number of people waiting more than four hours has certainly improved recently, but it was still higher in June 2023, at 113,834, than it was in September 2021 or earlier.
The data on patients waiting more than 12 hours shows a similar story, with clear improvement after December 2022, but with numbers in June 2023 still higher than they were before June 2022.
Time of arrival data
Earlier this year, NHS England began regularly publishing monthly data showing the number of patients waiting more than 12 hours in A&E from their time of arrival (rather than from a decision to admit them). Previously it only released data on the number of people spending more than 12 hours in A&E from arrival annually. This new data shows that in June 2023, 108,225 people spent more than 12 hours in an emergency department from arrival to departure—meaning they were either admitted to hospital, transferred or discharged.
This is down from a peak of 147,405 in March this year. This data only goes back to February, but the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) has also published data it collected through Freedom of Information requests, dating back to January 2018.
This FOI data shows that the number of patients waiting 12 hours or longer in A&E from their time of arrival was still higher in June this year than it had been in February 2022 or earlier.
This again suggests that while there have been improvements in recent months, the number of patients waiting more than 12 hours from arriving in A&E is not the best it has been in the past two years.
Are A&E waits the best in two years?
The data we have doesn’t seem to back this up, although it’s possible Mr Sunak had some other measurement in mind.
The published NHS data does show that there have been improvements in recent months across the four-hour target, four and 12 hour waits from decisions to admit to admission and 12 hour waits from arriving in A&E.
But none of the data suggests waiting times are the best they’ve been for 24 months, and the 12-month averages have all got worse since June 2021.
Nuffield Trust fellow Jessica Morris told us: “It is difficult to tell what the Prime Minister meant by saying A&E waiting times were the best for two years, as June’s figures on the headline four hour performance indicator are worse than those for April and May.
“This claim could reflect that June, and the past three months, were better than the same time last year, though worse than in 2021.”
Tim Gardner, assistant director of policy at the Health Foundation, agreed about the trend in the four hour A&E waiting time figures, and added: “Last month [was not] even the best for the four hour standard in the last two years—performance exceeded 73.3% in nine of the last 24 months (July 2021-January 2022 and April-May 2023), leaving June 2023 as only the tenth best month in the last two years.
“[...]The prime minister’s claim that A&E waiting times in England are the best in two years is difficult to square with the data currently in the public domain.
“If the government is relying on unpublished data—or measuring its success against an alternative target—it needs to be transparent about how it has reached that conclusion.”
Full disclosure: The Health Foundation has funded Full Fact's health fact checking since January 2023. We disclose all funding we receive over £5,000 and you can see these figures here. (The page is updated annually.) Full Fact has full editorial independence in determining topics to review for fact checking and the conclusions of our analysis.
Image courtesy of UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor