Budget 2021: 'No guarantee' NHS will be cleared even with £5.9 billion boost

Can the government cut the record-length NHS waiting list? Shehab Khan reports

The NHS will be given a £5.9 billion boost to tackle its record-length waiting list - but there is no guarantee the funding will clear the queue of 5.7 million patients.

The investment designed to cut NHS backlogs across England will form part of Chancellor Rishi Sunak's upcoming Budget.

But Health Secretary Sajid Javid, ahead of Wednesday's announcement, said: "I don't think anyone can make a guarantee on the backlog that it's going to be cleared or will fall by a certain amount."

He added: "If you want to know why we can't guarantee it, it's because it also depends on demand - we estimate there are seven million people who stayed away during the height of the pandemic... we don't know how many will come back."

Health experts have also warned that the NHS may not be prepared for the challenges this winter amid rising Covid cases and exhausted and demoralised staff.

The health secretary accepted there are "staff shortages in the NHS" but said numbers are increasing.

In a bid to tackle the problem, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to set out in his Budget the investment in NHS capital funding that will support the aim to deliver around 30% more elective activity by 2024-25 compared to pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels.

"This is equivalent to millions more checks, scans and procedures for non-emergency patients," the Treasury said, but some in the healthcare sector have said the investment "falls short" of what's needed to get the NHS back on track.

“We are committed to getting health services back on track and ensuring no one is left waiting for vital tests or treatment," Mr Sunak said.

“This is a game-changing investment in the NHS to make sure we have the right buildings, equipment and systems to get patients the help they need and make sure the NHS is fit for the future,” he added.

Where will the money go?

- Diagnostic services

£2.3 billion of the funding package will be used to try to transform diagnostic services in an effort to address the coronavirus backlog of people waiting for checks, tests and scans, and help get waiting lists down.

The Treasury said there will be at least 100 “one-stop-shop” community diagnostic centres across England, including the 44 already announced.

These centres are expected to help clear most existing test backlogs caused by the pandemic, including for CT, MRI and ultrasound scans, by the end of the parliament.

The Treasury said the additional capacity will also ensure the resilience of the country’s diagnostic services in the years to come.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks with staff as he views an MRI scanner during a visit to Leeds General Infirmary in West Yorkshire. Credit: PA

- Surgical hubs

£1.5 billion of the settlement will be used for increased bed capacity, equipment and new surgical hubs to tackle waiting times for elective surgeries.

Each hub will be equipped with four or five surgical theatres designated for critical elective surgeries.

- Technology

£2.1 billion of the £5.9 billion total will be invested in technology and data in a bid to improve efficiency and security within the health service.

It is hoped the new and improved IT will help NHS staff have access to the fastest broadband, and that digital patient records will ensure patients get the best care wherever they are.

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The Treasury on Sunday said the £5.9 billion funding is on top of the government’s plan to spend £8 billion to tackle the elective backlog over the next three years, and the £97 billion additional funding the government has provided to support health and care since the start of the pandemic.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “Our phenomenal NHS has worked so hard to keep people safe during the pandemic and we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure people are getting the treatment they need as quickly as possible.

“Business as usual won’t be enough, that’s why we are going to reform care with more community diagnostic centres, new surgical hubs and the latest technology to help recover NHS services by tackling waiting lists”.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he'll do whatever it takes to ensure people are getting the treatments they need as quickly as possible. Credit: PA

While many in the healthcare sector have welcomed the investment, some have said it "falls short" of what the NHS needs to get back on track.

Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation said: “Health leaders will welcome the record investment given to the NHS and they appreciate its significance in the context of a pandemic that has been so damaging to our economy.

“However, the Treasury will know that the NHS’s allocation in the Spending Review falls short of what is needed to get services completely back on track," she added.

While further details on a complete breakdown of where the money will go are set to be revealed by Mr Sunak on Wednesday, Dr McCay said the investment doesn't go far enough, with Covid still presenting challenges for the NHS that will affect costs both now and in the months and years ahead.

“We support the analysis carried out by the Health Foundation, which confirmed that the NHS’s capital budget should increase by at least £1.8 billion a year over the next three years and that in terms of revenue funding, the NHS will need an extra £10 billion from April," she said “Finally, any investment will only deliver if there are the right number and mix of workers to do so. Recruitment is ongoing but with 80,000 vacancies across the NHS and fully-qualified GPs per patient having dropped by 10% over the past five years, this is a long-term issue that cannot be fixed quickly,” Dr McCay added.