Waiting times in Wales and England

Patient on stretcher

It doesn't need much to kick start a debate on the NHS, but a new set of up-to-date directly comparable figures on waiting times between Wales and England is a good place to start.

Finding comparable data has always been a tortuous process, so this gives a revealing snapshot into waiting times across the NHS.

These are clearly difficult figures for Labour and I'd expect them to form the backdrop to many of the health debates in the coming months.

Is Wales' comparatively older, poorer and sicker population to blame? The well-respected Nuffield Trust says that while it may be a factor, it doesn't explain the extent of the divergence.

And then there's the question of how health services are managed. The system in England operates under a so-called targets and terror regime, in Wales the system is altogether cosier with no internal market, and a much better relationship between the government and health professionals.


Whatever the reason, the Deputy Health Minister Vaughan Gething took to the airwaves with the message that it's not all about waits, but about patient outcomes.

The problem with this defence is that if you have to wait too long, for a hip operation for example, the overall outcome isn't going to be good, no matter how high the quality of the surgery.

My sense is that few people question the quality of the treatment they receive.

As ministers are keen to point out to us on a regular basis, most people have a good experience in the NHS.

The issue for many is not the actual quality of the treatment, but the length of time they wait to be seen.


Ministers are also, in effect, appealing for people to give them time to implement a number of plans to help people receive treatment in their communities, rather than by taking up the time of consultants.

And there have been improvements in some areas. The waits for heart by-pass surgery are on average 54 days longer than in England, but in 2011 the waits were 120 days longer.

Time, of course, is one thing a government doesn't have as it approaches an election.

Opposition parties will claim these waits are a legacy of the decision not to protect health budgets in the early years of the administration.

Labour will be hoping to cancel that out with the latest Treasury figures showing that spending per head on the NHS is higher in Wales than in England.

Opposition parties have seized on the figures. In no particular order, they've been labelled "disgusting", a "cause for concern" and sufficiently serious to merit an apology.

It's all strong stuff but while these figures unquestionably make difficult reading for Labour, they also pose serious questions for the opposition parties.

For example, how would the Conservatives plan for directly-elected chairs of health boards wipe out four month waits for hip replacements?

And the same question goes for Plaid, with its plan for a major re-organisation of services. All questions that will need answering in the coming weeks.