Just 84.6% of accident and emergency patients in England were seen within four hours last month, dropping from 85% in February and compared to 90% in March 2017.
The numbers mean the four lowest ever figures for the NHS’s key target were recorded in the last four months. In December 85.1% of people were seen within the four hour window, and in January 85.3% were seen.
Waiting times for planned treatment have also failed to meet targets for the last two years, with 87.9% of patients starting treatment within 18 weeks. The NHS benchmark is 92%.
President of the Society for Acute Medicine Nick Scriven called the figures the “clearest indication yet of the eternal winter we now face in the NHS” and urged a turning point in planning.
“As we settle into spring, hospitals remain under immense pressure, and I am unsure how on earth we are going to catch up with elective surgery given some non-urgent operations continue to be cancelled in parts of the country,” he said.
There were more emergency admissions in March than any month on record, with the number up 3.3% to 526,398, equating to nearly 17,000 per day.
In total 2,047,092 people were admitted to A&E departments during the month.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “As expected, these figures for a month ago confirm what was widely reported at the time, namely that during March the NHS continued to experience severe winter pressures.”
The headline indicator in type one A&E departments – 24-hour units equipped for the most serious cases – was also the lowest since records began, with 76.4% of patients seen in four hours compared to 85.1% last March.
With freezing winter temperatures resulting in unprecedented demand at A&E departments, some hospitals had to cancel planned operations in order to prioritise emergency care.
In badly affected areas cancer operations were cancelled – a move Royal College of Surgeons vice president Ian Eardley called “utterly unacceptable”.
“To avoid such a situation arising again, planning for next winter must start now,” he said. “There also needs to be a concrete plan for dealing with the backlog that has grown over this winter.”
The number of patients facing long waits between being seen and being admitted was also high during March.
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76,054 patients faced “trolley wait” delays of more than four hours, compared to 42,970 in the same month last year, and of these 853 were more than 12 hours hours compared to 270 in March 2018.
The last year has seen 23.8 million attendances to A&E in total, with 6 million emergency admissions.