Tens of thousands of patients a month are waiting longer in accident and emergency departments following the decision by Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, to ease the target for them to be seen.

At the same time, the number of waiting list operations cancelled at the last minute has risen, latest official figures show.

Last summer, the health secretary reduced the requirement for hospitals to see 98 per cent of patients in casualty departments within four hours to 95 per cent, and from April this year he is scrapping the target, replacing it with a clutch of other indicators.

Figures for the quarter ending December 31 show that 96.5 per cent of patients were seen within four hours, against 98 per cent in the previous quarter and 97.84 per cent in the same December quarter last year.

With 5.2m attendances during the three months, the 1.5 percentage point drop in those being seen within four hours equates to almost 80,000 patients. While some hospitals are seeing all patients within four hours, more than 30 NHS trusts are missing the 95 per cent target.

“Patients are starting to see services suffer because of the decisions ministers are taking on the NHS,” said John Healey, Labour’s health spokesman. “We are seeing the consequences of the removal of Labour’s waiting time guarantees.”

Last summer, Mr Lansley stopped the Department of Health pursuing hospitals over Labour’s target ensuring patients did not have to wait more than 18 weeks for treatment. The numbers waiting longer than that have also been rising, although it is not yet clear whether that is a largely seasonal increase.

On the A & E times, John Appleby, the King’s Fund health economist, said: “It certainly looks to have been some slippage. It does suggest that if you stop performance managing these things, they do get worse.”

The department said it had dropped the 98 per cent target on clinical advice and that even the 95 per cent target, which is to go, “is inadequate by itself”.

The new “quality indicators”, which included time to diagnosis being recorded, readmittance waits and how many patients left without being seen, would allow hospitals to show they were providing safe and effective care “rather than meeting only a time-specific target”, the department said. Cancelled operations rose 6 per cent to 16,785, a rise it dismissed as seasonal.

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