The claim

“Let me just tell him what is actually happening in the health service under this government. Waiting times for outpatients? Down. Waiting times for inpatients? Down. Number of people waiting in total? Down. The number of people waiting for more than a year has been halved under this government. Hospital infections? Down to their lowest level, and mixed-sex wards down by 94 per cent…4,000 more doctors, almost a thousand more midwives and fewer managers.”
David Cameron, 22 February 2012

The background

It was Groundhog Day at Prime Minister’s Question’s today, with David Cameron repeating the same routine he used last week on the NHS.

The government benches chanted along as David Cameron reeled off a list of coalition achievements on patient waiting times and other key performance measures.

At a time when Mr Cameron is on the back foot over the controversial health bill, it may be a crowd-pleaser, but does it pass the FactCheck test?

The analysis

We gave waiting times the full FactCheck treatment last week, but new figures have come out since then.

We now have the stats from December 2011. What do they tell us about the government’s stewardship of the health service?

Not a lot, as it happens.

The average wait between referral and treatment for inpatients was 7.7 weeks in December 2011. That’s down from 8.4 weeks in May 2010, when the Coalition came to power, but that’s an unfair comparison, as the difference is likely to be down to seasonal variation.

Year-on-year, things are virtually static. The average wait for inpatients was slightly longer at 7.9 weeks in December 2010, exactly the same at 7.7 weeks in December 2009 and 7.6 weeks in December 2008.

It’s much the same story for outpatients: 3.8 weeks in December 2011, 4.1 weeks in 2010, 4.2 weeks in 2009 and 4.1 weeks the year before.

On this evidence, Mr Cameron could technically claim that there’s been an improvement in waiting times on his watch, but the difference is pretty marginal.

Of course, average length of wait isn’t the only way to look at this issue. Another key benchmark is the percentage of patients who are treated within 18 weeks of referral, as is their right under the NHS constitution.

The latest figures show that 91.6 per cent of inpatients and 97.2 per cent of outpatients are being treated within 18 weeks. Those numbers are virtually unchanged since the election, when they stood at 92.9 per cent and 98.2 per cent respectively.

Year-on-year, there’s been a marginal fall in the standard over the last three years, but again, the difference is minuscule.

And he’s technically right to say the total number of people still waiting for treatment at the end of a given month is “down”, although barely. There were 2,384,799 people on the waiting list in December 2011 and 2,411,295 in the same month a year before.

What about staffing levels?

As we showed last week, the latest stats show that there were a little over 4,000 more NHS doctors in October 2011 than at the time of the last election.

Since then, a number of readers have pointed out something we failed to mention: it can take up to nine years to qualify as a GP, and 12 years to become a consultant to train a doctor.

So if there has been a surge in newly qualified physicians in the last two years, that must because the last government increased training places.

According to the latest provisional figures, Mr Cameron’s right about the number of midwives being up by just under a thousand too. But that rise isn’t enough to outpace the country’s soaring birth rate, so the ratio of new babies to midwives remains about the same.

The increase is also less than a third of the 3,000 extra midwives David Cameron previously promised. And the Royal College of Midwives says 5,000 full-time equivalent places are needed to meet the government’s own targets on maternity care.

These figures also prove the PM right on managers. There were more than 4,000 fewer managers in October 2011 than in May 2010 (whether that’s cause for celebration is, of course, a matter of opinion).

And yes, incidents of patients being put on wards with members of the opposite sex have fallen very dramatically, from 11,802 in December last year to just 625 in January 2012 – exactly 94 per cent.

As for hospital infections, we’ll defer to the King’s Fund, who say cases of C difficile and MRSA have been falling steadily for two years. Admirable, but not down to the policies of this government.

The verdict

There’s no evidence of significant improvement in NHS waiting times since the coalition came to power – but neither are things in an obvious state of decline.

Ultimately, the figures suggest that the NHS really started to get its house in order on waiting times in 2008, and things haven’t changed much since then. The change of government in 2010 hasn’t made a statistically significant impact either way.

Midwife numbers are up – though by far less than promised – and there are more doctors, but Mr Cameron can’t take the credit for that.

Similarly, the decline of the superbug is a trend that began under Labour and has continued under the coalition.

So Mr Cameron’s right to defend the NHS’s achievements in maintaining high standards for waiting times and in other areas, but wrong, in many instances, to claim the credit for the current government.

By Patrick Worrall