BBC utterly misleads on the NHS – yet again

I just witnessed a subtle but shockingly lamentable piece of craven journalism on BBC News. The BBC has an already-woeful record on the NHS under this government, almost completely ignoring the opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill (now Act) and the ‘clear and present danger’ of the government’s ‘forced privatisation‘ measures forced through as ‘secondary legislation‘ under section 75 of the Act – and then simply recycling old responses when viewers complained about these glaring omissions.

Well, the BBC clearly has no intention of resting on its mildew-ridden laurels now that it’s helped the Tories’ ‘big ticket’ items through. Tonight’s piece of collaboration was a feature on problems in Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments – a phenomenon which the government has ludicrously tried to blame on GPs.

The BBC led the piece with some figures, stating that 313,000 people waited longer than the government’s 4-hour target in the first quarter of 2013 – ‘the worst figures in nearly a decade’. It segued to a pointless interview with an old lady whose even older, diabetic mother had waited for ‘9 long hours’ in A&E last October (i.e. not in the first quarter of 2012!), with some shots of the daughter polishing a photo of her mum as if she had passed away – which she hadn’t, since the narrator said that she is a diabetic, not ‘was’. The quote from the daughter was

It’s very undignified being in a cubicle when you’re so ill. It was just so difficult for mum, who gets upset.

While I wouldn’t wish a 9-hour wait on an old lady, there’s nothing particularly undignified about waiting in a cubicle, i.e. not in a corridor or otherwise on show to others, but in privacy – and A&Es do ‘triage’ for a reason, to decide who needs to be seen most urgently. Clearly the lady’s mum wasn’t in need of urgent attention, nor did the piece say she was – the impression was just left hanging that some serious neglect had occurred.

But then came the real ‘quisling’ moment, as the BBC subtly but completely distorted the facts to fit the government’s preferred narrative. The BBC moved onto the supposedly crucial rise in the numbers of people visiting A&E every year:

The latest figures show how attendances at A&E have shot up over the past decade. In the years leading up to 2003, the number of people visiting A&E in England was fairly static at just over 14 million. But since then numbers have increased sharply to nearly 22 million patients last year. That’s an increase of more than 50% in the last 10 years.

This narration was accompanied by a graph, which I’ve done my best to snapshot from my TV screen:


It then moved onto a very brief interview with John Appleby, the Chief Economist of the Kings Fund, an influential “independent charity working to improve health and health care in England”, before quickly resuming the voice-over:

A complex mix of long and short term issues have also contributed to recent pressures. As well as an ageing population, there are changes to GP out of hours care and confusion over the NHS ‘111’ helpline, as well as pressures on community services. All are having an impact.

The piece finishes by looking at a hospital in Bolton and noting that it managed to hit its 95% A&E waiting time target, then mentioning supposed additional funds promised by ministers. Then the closing comment, echoing the government’s line:

[ministers] blame many of the problems on changes to out of hours GP care, but a long-term fix will involve the whole health system, from family doctors to community services.

Why is this so treacherous? Let’s see.

The graph

Let’s look again at that graph, showing the ‘sharp increase’ over the last decade, this time with a small bit of highlighting added:


Note that the last two columns in the graph relate to 2010/11 and 2011/12 – the first two years of what currently passes for a government in this country. Now look at the top of the columns:

BBC AE closeup

There was almost no change in those two years in the number of people visiting A&E.

When the coalition government took office, satisfaction levels with the A&E were at an all-time high of 70%. In the first year of this government, that fell by a record amount for a single year, down to 58%:


Now, over the last year, A&E waits exceeding 4 hours have increased by 40% – and almost 33% of that is in just the last 3 months.

Look at those 2010-2012 A&E attendance figures again – almost exactly the same in both years. Yet an increase of 40% in excessive waits.

The changes over the last 10 years are precisely, absolutely irrelevant to the matter at hand. Under Labour, the NHS coped with an increase of almost 50% – while maintaining patient satisfaction and keeping waiting times under control.

In the last two years – two years of almost zero increase in attendances – waiting times increased massively. But by extending the timeline to 10 years, the BBC effectively disguised the real story – unless you look really closely and think hard.

This is the biggest act of craven collaboration. But the BBC wasn’t finished.

GP out of hours

The government’s attempts to lay the blame for the A&E situation – and the BBC’s tame echoing of it – are nothing short of pathetic, and this is underlined, unwittingly, by the BBC. The changes to GP out of hours services took place in 2004 – so 6 long years of strong waiting time performance took place under the last Labour government with the same out of hours arrangements we now have.

And the last year in which waiting time performance was worse than now was in – you’ve guessed it – 2004. So the changes to the out of hours provisions actually led to (or at least coincided with) a sustained improvement in A&E waiting times.

A complex mix?

By closing out the piece with its comments about a ‘complex mix of long and short term issues’, the BBC was again diverting attention from the real issue. Confusion about the 111 service and (as we’ve seen) the changes to GPs’ out of hours services are not the reason for the dramatic worsening in A&E waiting times.

So what is? Well, the answer’s pretty obvious – but we can turn to John Appleby, whose comments the BBC piece skipped over, for the answer.

Mr Appleby was recently interviewed by BBC journalist John Humphreys. Here is an extract:

JA: But in fact that [the change to GP hours] was nearly ten years ago now. And we did see a rise, not so much in major A&E attendances, but in the sort of walk-in centres, minor injuries units and so on. But it kept building from then, so it is hard to pin it on the change in the contracts ..

JH: Is it because of cuts to the health service

JA: I certainly think that is one of the key reasons actually.

‘Cuts to the health service’. Cuts that have happened under this government, leading to a rapid deterioration in performance. Cuts in funding, and cuts in staffing – with massive numbers of posts simply unfilled to reduce costs without making headlines.

That’s the simple truth – a truth that the figures the BBC showed clearly point to. And yet, instead of doing its job and drawing attention to the real story, the BBC chose to emphasise the 10-year curve as if it portrayed something completely at odds with what it really showed.

None of this is accident. We are being deliberately misled. The government could not avoid the Kings Fund’s headlines about A&E problems – so it co-opted the BBC to defuse them. Not only that, but we’re also being set up – set up to think of the NHS as collapsing under its own weight instead of because its foundations are being deliberately undermined.

Misled, so that the government can throw open the gates to even more rampant privatisation – and claim that in doing so, it is ‘saving’ the NHS.

If you know someone is deliberately misleading you, the only sane course is never to believe them again – and to put them out of earshot at the first possible opportunity. And sadly, most parts of the BBC are now more part of the problem than of the solution that they should be.

Please don’t be fooled – and draw the attention of as many people as you can to the deception, so they’re not fooled either. The present and future health of our country depends on it.

If you want to contribute to the fight to save the NHS, please visit CCGWatch.org.uk and consider making a one-off or ongoing donation via the PayPal link. Every penny will go toward combating NHS privatisation. Thank you.


  1. I haven’t reblogged this because I wanted to add a bit to it, so on Vox Political there is now an article with the exact same headline, plus a graph that the Labour Party put out very recently, showing how A&E waiting times have shot up under the Conservative – there I go again – COALITION government, plus contact details for anyone who wants to complain to the BBC.

    1. Don’t worry, complaint to BBC already “in progress” – that is to say after a couple of months we are on level 3! No satisfaction yet.

  2. I caught the tail end of a report on yesterday’s Radio Four Today programme so I didn’t hear the names of who was being interviewed. Along with the usual GP bashing bullshit the government spokesperson was also trying to blame some of the rise in numbers attending A&E on immigrants by suggesting they didn’t bother registering with GPs and used A&E as a substitute. The impression he was painting was of A&E depts swamped by ‘health tourists’. Thankfully the woman who they invited to give the NHS view was well informed and put forward much the same view as you’ve done here and she totally debunked the immigrant nonsense with some reliable statistics. In my view her balanced view made the government spokesperson look like an ideological scaremonger, which was precisely what he was. Sadly though the Today programme gave him the last word.
    When people see and hear only these fairy stories constantly repeated in the mainstream media day after day, backed up by the ‘expert’ commentators selected to go on and give their view then these stories become ‘facts’ in the public mind. Its a very dangerous situation when ‘news’channels like the BBC, which many people believe are balanced and non partisan, are actually being used as a mouthpiece for a very particular, right wing political discourse.
    When you add to this the fact that some websites blogging about disabilty issues and being particularly critical of Atos have been closed down and factor in your recent experience with Twitter, things begin to look very nasty indeed.
    I think its more important than ever that we vote this Tory government out – and yes I’m afraid it is essentially Tory because its obvious the LibDem faction in government are totally under their thumb.

    1. Couldn’t agree more! I think the interview you caught was with Clare Gerada, the Chair of the Royal College of GPs, She’s just brilliant, and ran rings around the weasel politician.

  3. To be fair to theperson interviewed, when I saw this earlier in the day it was longer, and described in more detail the distress her mother faced. I think you make some good points, but I am still interested in why A & E attendence has grown shockingly under the last Government.

  4. Did you hear this mornings’ effort? 40 hospitals should be closed- Jeremy Hunt says that is not the answer. (i.e. closure) You just know over the next few weeks he’s going to come up with the alternative answer- privatisation. Anything to push their own agenda; any lie will do.

  5. Good article again. Just to clarify – wasn’t John Appleby on R4 saying that when the out-of-hours service changed in 2004 the methodology of counting changed also. In other words emergency attendances began to include walk-ins, GP OOH centres etc as well as A&E; some of which had been dealt with previously by practice GPs in various ways. In other words it may well be that there wasn’t in fact a rise (or a rise of that magnitude) at all (look at the graph – there’s a step-change around 2004) – or at least not until recently. Personally I think the more plausible explanation is that there was a statistical step change in 2004 and a gradual slow increase in utilisation of acute care as expected – until the current government had embedded itself and put the squeeze on ….. and when the rest of the system is under pressure – where can you go but A&E?
    Sadly HMG will use this self-inflicted A&E problem as an excuse to close hospitals or privatise them – whereas the correct response is to invest in local A&Es (of various types depending on location) – because a) that is the release valve when other parts of the system fail, b) it’s the way in to other acute services in a hurry and c) it’s the thing that really reassures local populations that help is at hand in an emergency.
    Oh and just before a deluge of comments on people abusing A&E …. most information on this topic seems to suggest that the vast majority of people attending A&E are either ill (or very ill) or injured – amazing!!
    Invest in quality and access – better …. and cheaper in the end.

    1. Thanks for that. Nice to hear a reasoned analysis, not going beyond the available information. The message seems to be a) stay calm, b) see what happens next winter, c) invest in ultra-front line services but look for causes of problems in the whole system.
      Hospitals are complicated. The management needs to keep an overview and attend to multiple causes rather than focussing on A&E alone. Mind you, that’s not easy when the target is applied to A&E.

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