NHS 'rapped' over leaks of A&E data

Nurses turning a patient Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Pressures have been building on the NHS this winter

NHS leaders in England have been asked by the statistics watchdog to rethink current policies that delay publishing official data on accident and emergency waiting times.

This follows two separate leaks to BBC News of A&E data for January, which suggested the worst performance by hospitals since records began.

NHS England and the regulator NHS Improvement have been told by the UK Statistics Authority to review the practice of publishing the data six weeks after collecting it.

Their leaders have been asked to "to determine how you could reduce the time lag in publication".

The call for a review comes in a letter from Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the authority, to those who chair the organisations.

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The two leaks of A&E statistics to BBC News came from management information collected by NHS Improvement.

The second leak - relating to the full month of January - suggested that from a total of more than 1.4 million attendances at A&E:

  • 82% of patients in A&E - rather than the target 95% - were transferred, admitted or discharged within four hours
  • More than 60,000 people waited between four and 12 hours in A&E for a hospital bed, after a decision to admit, known as a "trolley wait"
  • More than 780 people waited for more than 12 hours for a bed

At the time the leaked data, obtained by BBC reporter Faye Kirkland, was dismissed as incomplete by NHS sources.

Mr Humpherson described the leaks of management information as "a disorderly release of data", which had created "a confused picture".

But, in what amounts to a rap over the knuckles, he goes on to urge the NHS organisations to "undertake the appropriate reviews of how this management information is used and shared".

Embarrassingly for NHS leaders, the Statistics Authority chief criticises the publication policy for A&E attendance stats.

Policy change

In the summer of 2015, NHS England announced it would stop publishing this data weekly and would shift to a monthly cycle to "standardise reporting arrangements" with other information such as cancer waiting times and ambulance response times.

This was criticised at the time as a reduction in timely information flow from hospitals, especially during winter months.

Mr Humpherson notes that the monthly publication policy creates a six-week lag for A&E data, which "leaves the system vulnerable to leaks because management information circulates around the NHS system for operational purposes well in advance of the publication of the statistics".

He has called on the NHS bodies to review the "timeliness" of the official performance data by the end of April and talks of the importance of "maintaining trust".

In effect, the statistics watchdog is saying that if the information is available to NHS managers in January, it should also be made available to the media and the public rather than held until March for publication.

It amounts to a warning to NHS England that leaks are inevitable under the current arrangements.

A spokesperson for NHS England said: "UKSA has approached the NHS following a leak of unvalidated NHS improvement material to the BBC ahead of its official publication, and NHS Improvement is now considering with other national bodies how best to ensure timely official publication while ensuring this doesn't happen again."

This will no doubt create headaches for NHS chiefs who have tried hard to justify the adoption of monthly rather than weekly data releases.

Their case was weakened when the Scottish government opted to move to a weekly A&E publication schedule just as NHS England was going in the opposite direction.

And the case has certainly been weakened even further by the UK Statistics Authority's intervention and what amounts to a clarion call for transparency.