Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has reiterated the Government’s promise to cut elective waiting times, marking it as one of his top ‘five promises’ for 2023.
In his first speech of the new year, Mr Sunak named reducing waiting lists for elective services as one of his top priorities – a pledge the NHS in England has long been working toward under its elective recovery plan.
However, the Prime Minister did not make any new commitments to the service.
He highlighted that ‘healthcare professionals are still unable to deliver the care they want [to]’, adding that ‘something has to change’ but that this ‘does not mean structural reforms to the NHS’ and should instead focus on improving patient choice.
When asked by the media why he chose to focus on elective care over more immediate challenges in A&E, he said the Government must simply focus on both.
Mr Sunak suggested that too much elective activity was ‘stopped’ during the pandemic, which had contributed to the current 7 million-strong waiting list.
He said: ‘The amount of elective activity during covid was down to about half of what it normally does. The reason we’ve got a huge waiting list now is because we’re having to catch up on that.’
He pointed to the introduction of community diagnostic hubs as means of tackling constraints in elective care.
Mr Sunak also addressed the ongoing nursing and ambulance worker strikes, stating the Government’s ‘door is always open’ for dialogue after suggesting current pay requests were unreasonable.
This is despite criticism from unions that ministers are being avoidant.
Mr Sunak said today: ‘We want to have good two-way, open, honest conversations – those have to be rooted in what’s reasonable, what’s affordable, what’s responsible for the country. And I’m keen to have those conversations.
‘As I’ve said on pay, those conversations need to be based on what’s affordable. I think a 19% pay rise is not affordable. I don’t think anyone thinks a 19% pay rise is affordable.’
Professor Philip Banfield, BMA chair of council, said the Prime Minister had shown ‘a baffling lack of urgency’ in addressing a crisis that the ‘has brought the NHS to its knees’.
He said: ‘The NHS is collapsing before our eyes, but today’s speech lacked the detail staff needed to know that they haven’t been abandoned, and that the health service will be given what it needs to survive. Mr Sunak said he wants to be held accountable, and we are happy to oblige. He will be held accountable, as this crisis inevitably worsens and more staff and patients suffer as a result.’
And Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘The Prime Minster cannot afford to simply wish this crisis away. We need clear leadership from across government over a sustained period. But our starting point has to be to acknowledge the problem otherwise we cannot possibly begin to solve it.’
He added: ‘We now urgently need the the government to do all it can to negotiate a swift end to the industrial dispute that is exacerbating the problems faced by local health services.’
Mr Sunak also flagged the Government had invested £20 billion in public money into R&D for AI, life sciences, quantum, fintech, and green technology.
Hi also indicated his vision would focus on family, with family hubs established to ‘care for us when we are sick’.