Although we are not currently hitting the national A&E target, hospital A&E departments continue to perform well under great pressure. Overall they are coping with 1.9 million more attendances annually compared with 2009-10, and the average wait to see a doctor remains just 38 minutes.
May I reassure my hon. Friend that I am very aware of this issue, and I have had a number of meetings with hon. Members to discuss it? Patient safety has to be the utmost priority. We are working with the local trust, and we have been given an assurance that neighbouring hospitals will be able to absorb any extra activity, and that it is working hard to try to reopen the A&E department.
The temporary closure of A&E services at Chorley hospital has had a knock-on effect on hospitals across Lancashire, and anecdotally I hear of many more people turning up at Preston Royal. What reassurances can the right hon. Gentleman give my constituents and residents across Lancashire that he is doing everything he can to make sure that the staffing issues at Chorley are fixed and that Chorley A&E is open again?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have been monitoring the situation closely and have provided extra capacity at the Royal Preston hospital. Her own Royal Lancaster infirmary has recently come out of special measures and done a really good job in turning round the quality of care after protracted difficulties. We continue to monitor the situation, and patient safety is our No. 1 priority.
Following centralisation and specialisation processes to drive up the quality of clinical care, we now have patients presenting at minor injuries units and urgent care centres with conditions that need to be treated elsewhere. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that those centres own the patients’ experience once they have presented, so that we never again have a patient with a serious illness being sent out to make their own way to A&E?
As ever on health matters, my hon. Friend speaks wisely. The fundamental issue is a high level of confusion about what happens to patients when they are faced with a bewildering choice about what to do when they have an urgent health need that needs resolving. They can call 111, try to get an urgent GP appointment, go to a walk-in centre, go to A&E and many other alternatives. We need to resolve that and make it simpler for patients so that they go to the right place first time. Urgent work is happening to ensure that we do that.
The closure of the A&E unit at Chorley and South Ribble district general hospital has ramifications across the north-west. I am informed that North West Ambulance Service has taken on three private ambulances at a cost of £70,000 each a month to provide the extra cover that is required. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is a false economy when he allows A&E units to close on his watch? He simply passes on the costs to other parts of the fractured NHS over which he presides.
I recognise that we have a difficult situation in Chorley and that people in that trust are working very closely together. The chief executive of the trust pointed out that the reason for the closure was that neighbouring trusts were not respecting the caps on agency staff that she was respecting. It is incredibly important that, across the NHS, we have a concerted effort to bring down the prices paid for agency staff, which I think is the root problem here. However, we are monitoring the situation closely.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that, although we are happy to put the local authorities in Greater Manchester in the driving seat for some major changes, including what I hope will be the first full-scale integration of health and social care across the NHS, we are monitoring the performance against national standards. We will be able to see exactly how well they do on patient safety, waiting times and so on, and whether they live up to the big promises that have been made.