Record funding – Top priority is to deal with NHS waiting list, says Sajid Javid

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It comes as MPs today call for an urgent national recovery plan to address health service pressures, including on accident and emergencies and GP practices. Health Secretary Mr Javid reiterated that the Government was investing in better technology, more staff and new facilities, including surgical hubs, to bolster healthcare in the face of unprecedented demand.

Mr Javid said: “We’ve backed the NHS throughout the pandemic to ensure staff can keep providing the care and treatment people need, and tackling waiting lists is a top priority. To meet demand and tackle the backlogs, we can’t have business as usual.

“That’s why this Government is providing record levels of funding, recruiting thousands more people into the workforce, making use of the latest technology and deploying more efficient, innovative ways of working, including new surgical hubs and community diagnostic centres. The incredible staff in the NHS continue to provide excellent care for patients. So, if you are feeling unwell or you need help, please continue to come forward – the NHS is there for you.”

The Government is due to publish an elective recovery plan soon. It was delayed last year due to the arrival of the Omicron variant. A report released by the Health and Social Care Committee today warns that the “catastrophic impact” of Covid-19 on those waiting for treatment is becoming clearer. But the recovery could be derailed by staff shortages, Omicron and a mounting crisis in emergency care, it was said.

NHS data for England shows that in October more than 5.9 million people were on waiting lists for elective treatment, such as hip replacements or cataract surgery. This was up from 4.4 million just before the first Covid wave in February 2020. The latest total included 312,000 who had been waiting for longer than a year. There is also a “hidden” backlog of patients who have not yet come forward for care, which could push the waiting list as high as 13 million.

The committee took evidence from NHS leaders, health experts and patients, including some who felt “abandoned” as their lives were put on hold by delays during the pandemic. MPs welcomed the allocation of funding to create an extra nine million checks, scans and operations but said they were “unconvinced there are sufficient plans for recruitment and retention of staff”.

They also criticised the Government’s move to vote down an amendment to the Health and Care Bill which would have required Health Education England to publish annual reports on workforce projections. The committee warned that NHS staff could quit unless they see “light at the end of the tunnel” in the form of reinforcements to help them deal with the intense pressures on the health service.

Committee chair and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “The NHS faces an unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, with 5.8 million patients waiting for planned care [in September] and estimates that the figure could double by 2025.

“However, our report finds that the Government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this.

“Far from tackling the backlog, the NHS will be able to deliver little more than day-to-day firefighting unless the Government wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue.” The committee called for ministers and NHS England to publish a national health and care recovery plan by April. The MPs demanded it also take into account the impact of the pandemic on mental health, GP, community and social care services.

The impact on cancer services is being examined in another parallel inquiry. In October, emergency departments dealt with record numbers of 999 calls. One in four patients waited more than four hours to be admitted, transferred or discharged.

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The pandemic also disrupted GP appointments and sparked a drop in face-to-face ones. Health leaders last night welcomed the report’s recommendations. Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said: “MPs are right to have serious concerns about the knock-on effects of staff shortages on the NHS’s ability to deliver high quality care and reduce waiting lists.”

Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “The committee is right to call for a recovery plan. It must set out a clear vision for what success in tackling the backlog will look like.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “The pandemic has put enormous pressures on the NHS but we are committed to supporting hardworking staff to ensure people get the treatment they need. We have provided an additional £5.9billion to help tackle the backlogs and we are investing £36billion over three years which will help deliver an extra nine million checks, scans and operations for patients. We have over 5,100 doctors and nearly 10,000 more nurses in the NHS compared to last year and we’re committed to delivering 50,000 more nurses.”

Comment by Anita Charlesworth

HOSPITALS are under enormous pressure right now as Omicron blights the NHS. Today’s Health and Social Care Select Committee report is a stark reminder that once this wave of Covid passes, there is huge backlog of care that will continue to test services to the limit.

The NHS will have a mountain to climb to reduce the record-breaking waiting list of six million. And the list is likely to grow much longer – with some estimates suggesting it could reach over 10 million.

We can expect the coming weeks to be incredibly challenging for NHS staff – who have already gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic – as emergency services are stretched to the very limit. But as this wave passes, it’s crucial that the Government is realistic about the time and resources it will take to restore NHS services to prepandemic standards.

A credible NHS recovery plan will need to be backed by more money than the Chancellor has currently promised while a decent strategy for addressing widespread and long-standing staffing shortages across the health service is also urgently needed.

The NHS has fewer doctors, nurses and beds than other countries and the Government has committed £10billion to clearing the backlog. But this is considerably less than the £17billion we’ve estimated could be needed in this parliament.

Getting back to the 18-week standard for waiting times will require almost 19,000 more nurses and more than 4,000 extra doctors. The Government is yet to set out a much-needed plan for boosting the NHS workforce.

There are no quick fixes. While there is a lot of focus on hospitals, the recovery plan will need to mend services across the whole of the health and care system. This will have to included general practice, community and social care.

And it must ensure everyone can access the care they need, wherever they live. Covid-19 has impacted some parts of the country harder than others – and in the hardest-hit areas, waiting lists have increased most.

It is crucial that potential solutions to this crisis, such as asking patients to travel further for treatment, don’t have an adverse effect on the very people who have suffered the most over the past two years.

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