PMQs verdict: Miliband and Cameron both wrong on A&E times

Ed Miliband and David Cameron:  Both wrong.
Ed Miliband and David Cameron: Both wrong.
Adam Bienkov By

Is the time that people spend waiting in accident and emergency going up or down? This is the question that has dominated not just one, but two prime ministers questions in a row.

So what is the answer to this vital statistical question? Well if you listened only to Ed Miliband these past two weeks you would have come away with the impression that waiting times are going up.

If on the other hand, you listened only to David Cameron, you would assume that A&E waiting times are going inexorably down in a never-ending virtuous circle caused by record investment and competent management.

So which claim is right? The answer is neither.

Analysis by the House of Commons library shows that the median amount of time people spend in waiting for treatment in A&E has neither gone up nor down in the past five years

It has not increased and it has not decreased. It has stayed the same. It is in other words a total non-story. A total non-story which has now dominated two prime minister's questions in a row.

So let's waste some more time dissecting it.

Cameron and Miliband's claims today were both wrong. But there was perhaps a league table of wrongness going on.

Cameron's claim that waiting times are decreasing rested on figures showing that the time between arriving at A&E and then being assessed has come down.

This is a fairly meaningless statistic. Anybody who has been to an accident and emergency knows that these assessments are the equivalent of checking-in at the airport. A brief once-over in a side-room to make sure you're not about to drop dead, before you're booted out for another very long wait.

Even this statistic is questionable however. As the House of Commons library pointed out, this is probably due to changes in how the data is handled rather than any genuine fall in waiting times.

Once you strip out this effect, it's clear that the time spent waiting for assessments has actually stayed the same over the past five years.

Ed Miliband is similarly wrong. His claim that waiting times are increasing is based on figures showing that the median total time spent in A&E has gone up in recent years.

However, this increase only applies to those who require hospital admission. The total time that people who don't require admission spend in A&Es has actually stayed roughly the same, as has the time that people spend waiting for treatment, which after all is what most people consider a "waiting time."

So both Miliband and Cameron were wrong, but Miliband was perhaps slightly less wrong than Cameron.

So congratulations to Ed Miliband. After two weeks of forensic questioning, he's successfully got himself to a position where he's making slightly less misleading claims about A&E waiting times than the prime minister.

So what have we learned from this fortnight-long battle of statistics?

Well basically we've learnt that politicians like to twist statistics to suit their own political purposes, regardless of the facts.

So in other words we've learnt nothing.


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