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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Words, mere words

A lot of people dismiss the Assembly Plenary sessions as just a lot of politicians spouting hot air, and sometimes they are right. However, these meetings are an opportunity for genuine scrutiny and can often generate light as well as heat. This can be seen in the record of proceedings, but only if you read between the lines.

A good example of this was the exchange at First Minister's questions yesterday on the crisis facing accident and emergency services in Cardiff. Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Mike German, was on his feet demanding a report on Rhodri Morgan's visit to this unit last week. He started off though with a general point on the Welsh health service:

The Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group (Michael German): One of the areas where there is no shortage of diversity is the criticism of the health service by Labour MPs. Yesterday, the Minister for Health and Social Services, Dr Brian Gibbons, met Labour MPs in London. One of the MPs described Dr Gibbons as being less in denial than his predecessor. Are you less in denial now about the health service?

The First Minister: Those words mean nothing [long pause followed by laughter from opposition AMs] when you think about the real progress that we are making. I am more interested in figures and achievements than in words. If you consider the number of people who were waiting over 18 months in December 2003, around 5,700 people were waiting for in-patient treatment. That figure is now around 600, which is a welcome reduction. The number of people waiting over 12 months has fallen sharply from around 11,000 to 6,500. Likewise, the number of those waiting over 18 months for out-patient treatment has also fallen from around 8,000 to 6,000. Those are the figures. Do not worry about the jargon, Mike; no-one is interested in that. People are interested in what the NHS is doing to bring down waiting lists. I have given you the figures, and they are pretty impressive. They confirm what I said, namely that Jane Hutt came to the end of her period as Minister for Health and Social Services and handed on the baton to Brian Gibbons from a position of strength.

Michael German: You must still be in denial because if you add together the figures for in-patients and out-patients the total number is more than it was previously. You visited the University Hospital of Wales accident and emergency unit on Thursday, which was a panic visit to see what was going on. Do you still stand by what you said in the Chamber last week, which was that the situation there was normal for the time of year? What action will you now take to satisfy the nurses and the other medical professionals in that unit who are concerned that you gave no response other than saying that the situation was normal?

The First Minister: In answer to a question that you asked, Mike, I said that we were seeing a particularly acute version of the January problem—I am sure that you will have the text in front of you. I stand by what I said. I am sure that you will agree that that is what I said because it appears in the Record. I visited the University Hospital of Wales three times last week—two visits were to the accident and emergency unit. I learnt a great deal from the nurses and doctors and from the paramedics with whom I spoke on the forecourt. If I were to change my response last week, I would place considerably less emphasis on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as I do not think that that is such a major factor. The figures—and I think that we are only interested in figures here—indicate that peak periods, when the accident and emergency unit fills to bursting point, often happen in January as nine of the 14 such days over the past four years have occurred during that month. The facts are clear in that regard, and no amount of jargon or idiotic debating points of no interest to anyone can get you away from that. I would increase the emphasis that I placed last week on delayed transfers of care and possibly the dislocation caused by the new out-of-hours arrangements. I would also reduce the emphasis that I placed on the COPD problem.

Michael German: That is an interesting answer because, as you know, there were patients coming in and triaging at one end of the scale and there were delayed transfers at the other. The Assembly’s Health and Social Care Department has now told me that only two people had delayed transfers of care at the University Hospital of Wales as a result of social care issues. The line that you took last week was that Cardiff County Council was to blame for everything. The figures provided by your department show that that is not the case. What steps will you take and what will the Minister for Health and Social Services be doing on the days on which he will not be dealing with waiting lists—I do not know what he will be doing for six days of the week—to improve the situation at the UHW accident and emergency unit so that patients will not be left on trolleys out in the cold?

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