Ministers feel pretty sore about the Patients Association’s headline-generating allegations that hospital waiting times are again stretching under the coalition. But what else should they expect in such an ideologically polarised climate over the NHS?

In the past few days we have seen the SNP’s health minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the health unions piling in behind NHS Lothian’s dismay that a mishandled maintenance exercise at the PFI-built-and-managed Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh last month forced a surgeon to stitch up a post-op patient by torch light. The incident was picked up for PFI-bashing reasons by London newspapers, which don’t usually care much about Scotland’s hospitals.

No point in Tory and Lib Dem health ministers (and Ms Sturgeon) protesting that PFI-provider Consort’s role in this £190m acute teaching hospital is one for the Blair-Brown regime. The coalition has managed to blame spending cuts on Labour’s financial legacy rather than the profligate bankers, but has been less successful shedding its own “NHS privatisation” label – though it’s tried.

When NHS Surrey cut a £500m deal to let Richard Branson’s Virgin Care run a big chunk of community health services in this wealthy commuter county it was also attacked as proving the coalition’s “direction of travel” towards NHS privatisation. Ministers protest that Surrey acted using Labour’s 2006 legislation. But who’s listening? It’s more fun to get indignant.

What’s more, NHS-bashers like the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail weigh in to incite reader indignation. They got cross too when that magazine survey concluded last week that private out-of-hours services (cue for photo of Daniel Ubani, the German doctor who fatally overdosed a Cambridgeshire man) are both worse and costlier than NHS-provided ones. Yes, I know the GP’s contract was another Labour-sanctioned mishap by NHS negotiators. But do patients know?

In a real sense all this is as it should be. If the private sector wants to run services in the NHS then it can expect its fair share of blame when things go wrong, plus a bit extra because voters irrationally dislike the idea of “profiting” from healthcare – as if nurses do their angel stuff for free. If the private crowd discover it’s too hot or too complicated in the NHS kitchen, they can always get out, or end up in court. Did you spot that ex-managers at iSoft, the troubled former NHS IT contractor, are on trial for allegedly fiddling the books to con investors?

So what happened with the Patients Association’s finding that total waiting times for elective surgery had increased by 6 per cent overall in 2011 compared with 2010, this on the basis of replies by 93 hospital trusts (out of 160) to freedom of information requests about eight specific conditions? It’s a notoriously difficult area to evaluate – should, for instance, we judge by percentages or sheer numbers? Plainly the system is under pressure, it always is, so that last year’s Patients Association 2009-10 survey was also gloomy about trends.

Ministers suspect the association slipped its figures (“out of date”) out just ahead of their own data for the year ending in February 2012, which shows a much more upbeat story. The number of patients waiting 18 weeks to start treatment has fallen from 276,889 to 175,549 (37 per cent), those waiting six months has been halved to 63,198, etc etc, declared Simon “Smoker” Burns. What’s more, they’re increasing (by 12 per cent) in Labour-run Wales.

Everyone massages figures to reinforce their own message, so we must treat them all warily. To his credit, Mr Burns’s triumphant words came on a Tory press release, not from Richmond House.