NHS waiting list backlog in England will take two years to fall as Sajid Javid sets out Covid recovery plan

Sajid Javid warned if activity is not increased above pre-pandemic levels, the NHS waiting list could hit 14 million

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The NHS waiting list for hospital treatment in England will not start falling for another two years and could even double in size, despite a recovery plan to tackle the backlog in care.

Around six million people are currently on a waiting list for treatment, including hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery and tests.

Sajid Javid has warned the waiting list backlog is likely to increase (Photo: PA)Sajid Javid has warned the waiting list backlog is likely to increase (Photo: PA)
Sajid Javid has warned the waiting list backlog is likely to increase (Photo: PA)

The Health Secretary has warned that this number would probably increase as demand is expected to rise now that Covid-19 pressure is easing.

What is the government’s Covid recovery plan?

Sajid Javid set out in the Commons how the NHS would tackle the backlog built up during the Covid-19 pandemic, including new targets for cutting long waits and getting people checked for illnesses more quickly.

The ambitious plan includes the following targets:

  • The NHS will “eliminate” waits of more than 18 months by April 2023, and waits over 65 weeks by March 2024
  • Waits of longer than a year will end by March 2025
  • No-one will wait longer than two years for treatment by this July
  • Some 95% of patients needing a diagnostic test will receive it within six weeks by March 2025. This target already exists but is not being met.
  • By March 2024, 75% of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer will be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days.
  • By March 2023, people should wait no more than 62 days between an urgent referral for suspected cancer and the start of treatment. This target already exists but is not being met. The new aim is to return the number of people being seen to pre-pandemic levels.

Mr Javid said an estimated 10 million people are thought to have stayed away from the NHS during the pandemic and, despite the NHS’s “exceptional efforts”, there “is now a considerable Covid backlog of elective care”.

The plan states that if all of these 10 million people came forward for treatment, and activity was not increased above pre-pandemic levels, the NHS waiting list could hit 14 million.

He added that despite the NHS’s “exceptional efforts”, there “is now a considerable Covid backlog of elective care”. A total of 1,600 people were waiting longer than a year for care before the pandemic but that figure is now over 300,000.

Mr Javid said: “Assuming half of the missing demand from the pandemic returns over the next three years, the NHS expects waiting lists to be reducing by March 2024.

“Addressing long waits is critical to the recovery of elective care and we will be actively offering longer-waiting patients greater choice about their care to help bring these numbers down.

“The plan sets the ambition of eliminating waits of longer than a year, waits in elective care, by March 2025.

“With this no-one will wait longer than two years by July this year and the NHS aims to eliminate the waits of over 18 months by April 2023 and over 65 weeks by March 2024.”

‘Four areas of delivery’

Mr Javid said that “big, bold and ambitious” targets had been included in the plan, which will focus on “four areas of delivery”.

These include:

  • increasing health service capacity together with the independent sector
  • prioritising diagnosis and treatment
  • reforming care, such as making outpatient appointments more focused on “clinical risk and need”
  • increasing activity through dedicated surgical hubs

The plan also sets out how patients will be helped to make use of the NHS App to better manage appointments, bookings and the sharing of information.

As previously announced, some nine million additional treatments and diagnostic procedures will be brought in by 2025, while the admin burden on staff will be cut.

NHS England said this will mean that over a three-year period, patients will be offered around 17 million more diagnostic tests – an increase in capacity of a quarter compared with the three years prior to the pandemic.

The plan further promises to create dozens more community and NHS-based sites for surgical procedures and “convenient, quick diagnostic checks, towards our ambition of a network of surgical hubs and diagnostic centres covering the entire country”. This is in addition to the network of 122 surgical hubs already operating.

Teams of specialists will be deployed to help patients prepare for their operations, and groups of clinicians and teams will be able to get instant access to test results, offering patients faster clinical advice.

Speaking about the plan, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The NHS is there for us all in our time of need, but the pandemic has put unprecedented strain on health workers and patients alike.

“Today we have launched the biggest catch-up programme in the history of the health service backed by unprecedented funding.

“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.”

However, Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper said parts of the plan were 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.”

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, added: “This plan very clearly sets out what we need to do in the months and years ahead and, although it may seem radical in parts, is nevertheless essential if we are to reduce the backlog in elective care and ensure that those who are most sick are prioritised.

“By setting out in clear terms what patients can expect from the NHS and how they in turn can help, I hope it will also take some of the pressure off our hard-pressed health and care staff who are facing the most extraordinary workload and stress day in, day out.”

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