The NHS backlog for care will continue to rise for the next two years and is expected to not start falling until March 2024, the health secretary has said.
Speaking to the Commons today (8 February), Sajid Javid revealed that his elective recovery plan has factored in around two years of growing waiting lists.
An estimated 10 million people ‘stayed away from the NHS’ during the pandemic, he said, adding that even 50% returning would place ‘huge demand’ on the health service.
Mr Javid said: ‘Assuming half the missing demand from the pandemic returns over the next three years, the NHS expect the waiting list to be reducing by March 2024.’
The report said the NHS will work to provide an update on this in the summer, notnig that the exact level of demand over the coming months will be ‘hard to know’.
Currently, the backlog for care stands at 6 million people, of whom 306,996 patients were waiting more than 52 weeks.
Set out by NHS England and the DHSC, the new elective plan will aim to eliminate year-long waits by March 2025.
It will also:
- Clear two-year waits by July this year
- Remove all waits of longer than 18 months by April next year
- Return the number of people waiting more than 62 days from an urgent referral to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023.
NHSE also pledged to deliver around 30% more elective activity by 2024/25 compared to before the pandemic, after accounting for the impact of improved care through system transformation and new guidance.
Meanwhile, the NHS said it will offer patients around 17 million more diagnostic tests over the next three years, with more than 100 diagnostic centres expected to be rolled out.
As many as 66 are set to be in use across England by the end of March.
It comes as part of a wider push to boost capacity to deliver more procedures and scans.
To this end, NHSE will establish additional surgical hubs focusing on high-volume routine surgery to accompany the 122 currently operating in England.
Scheme criticised for lacking workforce plan
However, the announcement has drawn criticism for a lack of planning to address staffing crises across the NHS.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting claimed the recovery scheme ‘doesn’t contain a workforce plan’ to help solve ‘the single biggest challenge facing the NHS’.
He said that staff in the NHS are ‘overworked’ and suggested that staff could leave faster than the NHS is able to recruit.
And when asked by Lucy Allan, Conservative MP for Telford, his plans to tackle the staffing crisis, Mr Javid pointed to his previous request that the NHS put together a 10-year workforce strategy.
The report acknowledges that ‘further work is needed to more systematically train, recruit and retain staff’, noting that delivering elective care recovery will require more new staff and more opportunities for existing staff.
However, the plan stops short of delivering this plan, citing that the planned merger between Health Education England (HEE) – the body responsible for long-term workforce planning – and NHSE will see a ‘a more co-ordinated approach’ to planning.
In November, the Health and Social Care Committee announced an inquiry into NHS workforce recruitment, training and retention.
Also that month, MPs voted against amending the Health and Care Bill to grant greater transparency around workforce numbers in the NHS.