By G.A.Ponsonby
Yesterday we had the latest attempt by Labour and their media cronies to present the NHS in Scotland as somehow in crisis and at breaking point.
The usual headlines appeared on BBC Scotland online news, and Radio Scotland’s morning news programme Good Morning Scotland went through its now familiar routine of repeating the headline at regular intervals.

The host of Radio Scotland's Morning Call urged listeners to phone in with their anecdotes of hobbling into A&E and waiting.  The phone-in topic, which is standard fare for Morning Call, was coupled with people arranging their funerals (nice tough BBC Scotland) and we were told how awkward "us Brits" were on this subject.

On Reporting Scotland Sally Magnusson told viewers that waiting time targets had "plummeted in 2012/13".

It felt like groundhog day, and no wonder, for almost exactly one year ago BBC Scotland ran the same story, dutifully informing the public that waiting times in the NHS were the "worst ever".  Newsnet Scotland tore the claim to shreds at the time.

This time the sound-bite was things were 'three times worse'.  Apparently there was three times more people waiting longer than four hours in A&E than previously.

But as ever when it comes to NHS waiting times, the Scottish media - especially the BBC although STV were in on this one as well - then things aren’t ever what they appear.

In order to get the figure that showed three times as many people were waiting over four hours, the latest figures had to be compared with figures from five years ago.  If, as is the norm when compiling such reports, the latest annual figures were compared with those from the previous year then there was a very clear improvement.

Not surprisingly really, for the Scottish Government had already acknowledged over a year ago that the four hour waiting time target was slipping.  They announced a £50m action plan and re-set their short term goal from 98% to 95%.

Since the action plan was introduced, there has been an 87 per cent reduction in patients waiting over 12 hours.  In addition, the number of people attending A&E who were seen and treated within four hours was 93.5 per cent for December 2013, which has increased from 90.3 per cent in December 2012.

Waiting times are still not at the interim 95% target, but there is no doubt that the direction of travel is positive.

So why, when the action plan is into its first year and appearing to have a positive effect, did Audit Scotland not highlight this aspect instead of a spurious comparison with a system in place five years ago?  In its report, Audit Scotland highlighted the difference between 2013 and 2009 in its first 'Key Point'.

Indeed in the graphic, there is no mention of the progress being made by the Scottish Government over the last year.

To find out why the auditors selected 2008/09 as the baseline year, you have to read the actual report.

It says:

"We compare 2012/13 performance data with data going back to 2008/09, as this is the base year we used in our previous A&E report."

The report provides a link to the previous A&E report, which was published in 2010.  However a reading of this report threw up a rather odd anomaly.  The baseline used to compare the four hour waiting time target was not 2008/09 as claimed, but 2006.

The report contains a diagram (shown below) showing clearly that 2006 has been used.

The previous report also states clearly: "In the quarter ending March 2010, 96 per cent (365,949) of patients were seen within four hours compared with 88 per cent (334,907) in quarter ending June 2006 (Exhibit 15)." [my emphasis]

There’s no doubt this is the previous report in question, as I have already noted, it is linked to in the latest report.

So why has the new report claimed 2008/09 was the previous baseline when the text and diagram suggests it was 2006?  Comparing last year’s waiting times (93.5%) with 2006 (88%) would make for pretty good reading for Alex Neil.

But it would be a false impression, as I have already said, the latest figures show progress has been made but that the 95% figure has not yet been reached.  Figures published in February this year already show that in the fourth quarter of 2013 performance against the four hour A&E treatment target was 94.0 per cent.

Newsnet Scotland has asked Audit Scotland to explain what appears to be a significant anomaly in their use of 2008/09.  I will await the response with interest.

That notwithstanding, the headlines surrounding this latest report have suggested a crisis – they always do.  At First Minister’s Questions, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont herself used the word.

This was rather unwise of Ms Lamont, who also blundered by claiming the 2012 figures had been the worst ever.

The reason it was unwise was that in 2004, when Labour were in power at Holyrood, the party set a target of 98% for four hour waiting times.  When they left office, figures available for the period show that at best, Labour achieved 90.5% - a full three per cent less than what Lamont now suggests is a crisis.

Compounding this record is the fact that this was a time of plenty.  Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had not yet trashed the UK economy.  The austerity measures, implemented by the Tories, were yet to hit Scotland’s budget.

The report published by Audit Scotland has resulted in the predictable, and very sad, stories of people dying in unfortunate circumstances.  Such incidents will happen whichever party forms the government.

I can’t say for certain, but the Audit Scotland report looks like a report aimed more at generating the kind of headlines we saw yesterday than presenting an informative critique of the measures the Scottish Government introduced at considerable cost last year.

I predicted in December last year that the NHS would form part of the attacks on the SNP as we moved closer to the referendum.  This latest episode has not altered that opinion.

Finally, it's always interesting to look back and see how waiting time targets were reported by the BBC when Labour were in power in Scotland.  The image below provides a pretty good idea.

Crisis? what crisis?

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