The Government’s long-awaited NHS Covid recovery plan was today slammed for ‘not being ambitious enough’ and ‘falling seriously short’ of expectations by Labour, health unions and even a senior Tory — amid a suggestion that ministers failed to force tougher targets on the health service at the last minute.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, unveiled the £12billion-a-year blueprint out of the pandemic in the Commons today where he hailed it as ‘bold and radical’, claiming that the Government was ‘absolutely committed to tackling the Covid backlog and building a health and social care system for the long term’.
But the headline promise to scrap one-year waiting lists won’t come into effect until 2025 and the revised July 2022 deadline to scrap two-year queues is four months later than was previously promised by the Government.
Mr Javid also admitted the queues for routine care will continue to rise for another two years. All of the targets in the report are predicated on ‘maintaining low levels of Covid’, meaning they could be abandoned in the event of another serious outbreak. There are also no concrete recruitment targets over the next three years.
And despite promising to ‘go to war on cancer’, the commitment to diagnose suspected patients in 28 days is a target first set in 2019.
Labour said the plan fell ‘seriously short of the scale of the challenge facing the NHS and the misery affecting millions of people stuck on’ waiting lists and criticised the lack of a plan to address staff shortages.
The announcement also drew criticism from Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper, who said the waiting times targets were not ‘ambitious enough’ to warrant the £36bn price tag.
The Society for Acute Medicine warned the programme ‘will fail’ unless the Government gets a grip on the crisis in A&Es, which is forcing the cancellation of planned operations and seeing record numbers of emergency patients take elective beds.
The recovery plan was due to be published on Monday but it was delayed at the 11th hour after reports of a row between the NHS and Treasury over ‘tough targets’ demanded by the Chancellor.
But NHS leaders praised the health service for not caving into pressure to stick to strict deadlines after Rishi Sunak was reported to have blocked the ‘half-baked’ deal.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents trusts in England, hinted that the health service had stood firm despite Treasury demands. He said the targets announced today were ‘in line with what NHS leaders were expecting’.
Mr Javid today warned he expects elective waiting lists to get worse before they get better, with around 10million ‘missing’ appointments during the pandemic as people were told to stay away from hospitals to protect the NHS.
Running to more than 50 pages, the recovery plan promises to scrap waits of over 18 months by April 2023 and waits over 65 weeks by the following year, with ‘nobody’ waiting longer than a year by 2025.
Latest figures show more than 300,000 people have been languishing in queues for routine operations for at least a year — an almost 200-fold rise compared to the 1,600 before Covid struck.
Overall, there are already 6million people — the equivalent of one in nine — waiting for elective procedures like hip and knee operations or cataracts surgery, the highest figure since records began in August 2007. Mr Javid said the assumption was that waiting lists will start to come down in March 2024.
The NHS will also carry out an extra 9million extra checks, tests and procedures a year by 2025, with the Government promising to make ‘greater use’ of the private sector like it did during Covid.
There are also plans to build 100 ‘one-stop shop’ community diagnostic hubs within the next three years, with 69 already assembled. They will offer MRI and CT scans as well as blood tests and other procedures as part of the Government’s pledge to restore the pre-pandemic target of diagnosing 95 per cent of patients within six weeks.
Mr Javid said: ‘Just as we came together to tackle the virus, now we must come together in a new national mission to fight what the virus has brought with it. We are absolutely committed to tackling the Covid Backlog and building a health and social care system for the long term.’
The above graph shows how the NHS waiting list could grow up to 2025. The National Audit Office warns if 50 per cent of missing patients return and demand grows at 3.2 per cent a year then the list could surge above 12million. But should the NHS manage to increase treatments dished out by more than 10 per cent a year then the list should stabilise at 8million in 2024 before falling slightly, they suggested
The NHS recovery plan was due to be published on Monday but it was pushed back at the 11th hour because of a row over ‘tough targets’ demanded by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak (pictured left, today) and the Prime Minister (right, also today)
Mr Javid announced the plan — which was developed with Royal Colleges, patient groups and health charities — in the House of Commons this afternoon.
He said: ‘Our Covid Backlog Recovery Plan will help the NHS reduce waiting times, give patients more control over their care, and harness innovative technology to free up staff time so they can care for more people up and down the country can get the treatment they need.
‘This is a vital step in radically rethinking how our health service delivers operations, treatment and checks as we look beyond the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19.’
The Health Secretary said clearing the backlog will be achieved by increasing elective activity by 30 per cent by 2025, and by building new surgical hubs to add to the 122 already operating across the country.
Despite teasing radical new cancer policies last week, the recovery plan sets out an ambition to diagnose or rule out the disease in three-quarters of suspected patients within 28 days – a target first touted by Theresa May in 2019.
Under the plans, no one will have to wait longer than two months to find out if they have cancer by March 2023, an NHS pledge first made in 2009. Labour described the cancer aims as a ‘pathetic rehashing of old pledges’.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting criticised the proposals in the Chamber this afternoon.
Speaking at the despatch box, he said the plan ‘falls seriously short of the scale of the challenge facing the NHS and the misery that is affecting millions of people stuck on record high NHS waiting lists.
‘There’s no plan to tackle the workforce crisis, no plan to deal with delayed discharges and no hope of eliminating waits of more than a year before the general election in 2024,’ Mr Streeting said.
‘The only big new idea seems to be a website that tells people they’re waiting a long time, as if they didn’t already know.’
Conservative Mark Harper said parts of the plan are not ‘ambitious enough’ and called on the Health Secretary to be ‘more ambitious’.
The MP for Forest of Dean said: ‘Many on this side of the House were very reluctant but did support the increase in resources for the NHS through the increase to National Insurance and then the health and social care levy, but when we are making that argument to our constituents they will expect that money to deliver results.
‘Whilst this plan is welcome, can I ask him to perhaps be more ambitious, because I think only getting to 99% of patients waiting less than a year by March 24 isn’t ambitious enough.’
Sajid Javid said Mr Harper was ‘absolutely right’ about the importance of making sure ‘every penny’ spent on the NHS is spent wisely and ‘in the very best interests of taxpayers’.
‘That does have to translate into the ambition,’ he added, noting that Mr Harper and others ‘would not have had the time yet to look at the plan’.
Mr Javid added: ‘It is full of ambition, and indeed if the NHS can go much further than the targets I set out earlier that is what we would all want to see. It does depend… on how many people come back to the NHS and that is very hard to estimate.’
The plan also drew criticism from doctors, who said that it was destined to fail unless the Government sorts out the crisis in emergency departments.
Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: ‘While we support developing plans to help reduce the backlog of patients waiting for NHS care, the announcement today from the health secretary is far from comprehensive and fails to address key issues.
‘Everyone needs to be clear that plans to reduce the backlog of elective care are inextricably linked to the urgent and emergency care system.
‘As we have stated previously, overstretched acute medical services mean that elective beds are used for emergency patients which exacerbates the problem with waiting lists and impacts those waiting for urgent investigations and surgical procedures.
‘Elective care will never function well if other parts of the service are under significant strain and we are far from finding solutions to the workforce crisis, reductions in bed capacity and delayed discharges which remain a fundamental threat to recovery.’
The Government first announced that the NHS England would receive an extra £39bn over the next three years in September as part of a new ‘Health and Social Care Levy’. The NHS in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive proportionately similar amounts.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: ‘As we move out of the Omicron wave the NHS is applying the same determination and ‘can do’ spirit we have displayed throughout the pandemic, to address backlogs in routine care that have inevitably built up, and reduce long waits.
‘That cannot happen overnight but we are determined to make the best possible use of the additional investment and take the best from our pandemic response, including smarter use of digital care and flexible working between teams and trusts, while building this additional diagnostic capacity that will help to accelerate progress.
‘As we have always said throughout the pandemic, it is vitally important that anybody who has health needs continues to come forward, so that staff can help you with the best options for your care.’
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson described the three-year plan as the ‘biggest catch-up programme in the history of the health service’.
‘These measures will make sure patients receive the right care, in the right place at the right time as we bust the covid backlogs and recover from the pandemic,’ he added.
Latest figures show one in nine people in England were on the NHS waiting list for routine operations by the end of November.
More than 300,000 patients had waited over a year — often in pain — for ops such as hip and knee replacements or cataracts surgery. Of them, 18,500 had queued for at least two years — seven times more than last summer.
At the same time, just two-thirds (67.5 per cent) of cancer patients were given their first treatment within two months of the disease first being detected — the lowest number ever. Only three-quarters of suspected cancer patients were referred to a specialist within the NHS two-week target, another low.
Separate data shows total of 12,986 spent 12 or more hours in emergency departments before being treated in December — the most since records began in 2010 and up by a fifth from November.
At the same time, just 73 per cent of A&E patients were seen within the NHS’ four-hour target, the lowest percentage ever. Separate data shows heart attack patients waited 53 minutes on average for an ambulance to respond to their 999 call.
The number of people in England who saw a specialist for suspected cancer in November 2021 following an urgent GP referral was higher than the pre-pandemic average as patients continued to come back to the health service after multiple lockdown cycles.
However, the number who waited more than two weeks to see the specialist set a new record high for the third month running, soaring to more than 55,000 people in November.
Around 28,000 waited more than a month to start treatment – the second highest ever after last September.
People who waited more than a month to start treatment after a decision to treat was also the second highest-ever on record in November. And a record 14,900 waited more than two months.
Other NHS figures show ambulances responded to 82,000 category-one calls in December which was higher than any other month on record and the equivalent of one every 33 seconds.
The average response time in December for ambulances dealing with the most urgent incidents – defined as calls from people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries – was nine minutes and 13 seconds.
This is just under the nine minutes and 20 seconds in October, which was the longest average response time since current records began in August 2017.
Ambulances also took an average of 53 minutes and 21 seconds to respond to emergency calls, such as heart attacks burns, epilepsy and strokes – the second longest time on record.
Response times for urgent calls – late stages of labour, non-severe burns and diabetes – averaged two hours, 51 minutes and eight seconds, again the second longest time on record.