The National Health Service in England has racked up a deficit of nearly £500 million in the first three months of the financial year, adding further fuel to concerns that the system is fast approaching break point.

In a clear warning signal that the financial picture is worsening, the flagship Foundation Trust sector has, for the first time, booked a shortfall of £167 million, while the rest of NHS trusts are now £300 million into the red.

Added to this, key operational targets, including all-important waiting times targets for A&E, cancer treatments and routine operations, were missed in the first quarter of 2014/15, as the service grapples with ever-increasing demand.

The report, by health sector regulator Monitor, has sparked fears that the NHS in England could even be facing financial meltdown this year, before 2015’s General Election.

“These figures are significantly worse than expected and provide yet more evidence that the NHS is heading towards a financial crisis,” said Richard Murray, Director of Policy at think-tank The King’s Fund.

“The position in the acute sector in particular has deteriorated sharply, with around two thirds of hospitals now either already in deficit or forecasting a deficit at the end of the financial year. The number of foundation trusts in deficit is unprecedented”.

Patients will bear the cost

He also warned that “unless significant extra funding is found, patients will bear the cost as staff numbers are cut, waiting times rise and quality of care deteriorates”, and called for “emergency support” for otherwise sound organisations running up deficits because of the “unprecedented pressures on their budgets”. 

The Nuffield Trust warned back in July that “trusts’ increased reliance on temporary and agency staff, growing hospital admissions, and tight funding was combining to make the NHS poorly placed to deal with continued austerity, with efficiency savings harder and harder to come by”.

According to its chief executive Nigel Edwards, “while there is scope for greater efficiencies to be wrung from the system, this will not be enough”, and he noted that there is “little funding for major change unless trusts are already in financial distress, by which point it is often too late”.