Record NHS waiting lists will not fall until March 2024, Sajid Javid admits

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan examines the health secretary's pledge and asks does it go far enough?

NHS England hospital waiting lists for elective care, such a joint replacement surgery, are not expected to fall for at least another two years, the health secretary has admitted amid record treatment delays.

Labour said Sajid Javid's NHS elective recovery plan fell "seriously short" of what was needed to reduce the treatment backlog straining health services across the country.

In a statement on Tuesday, the health secretary promised that by March 2024, 99% of patients will wait less than one year for treatment, and vowed to cut waiting lists to under a year by 2025.

Sajid Javid meets staff in a Covid Intensive Care Unit during a visit to Kings College Hospital in London. Credit: PA

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

But Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting dismissed the plans as inadequate to deal with the scale of the crisis.

He claimed there is no plan to tackle workforce shortfalls, to deal with delayed discharges and no hope of eliminating waits of more than a year before the 2024 general election.

"I wonder if they will be putting that on their election leaflets," he said in response to Mr Javid's statement in the house.

"The only big new idea seems to be a website that tells people they are waiting a long time, as if they did not already know."

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Mr Javid had provided the latest figures on NHS waiting times, which revealed how badly pandemic pressures have impacted on delays.

NHS Providers have warned the issue is not just about elective and cancer backlogs in acute hospitals, but also patients and service users waiting for mental health and community services. The organisation, which represents every NHS hospital, said the changes needed to include an increase in workforce capacity, investment in a new network of community diagnostic hubs and new ways of treating patients.

Are the backlog plan targets realistic? ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan explains

Mr Javid said on Tuesday that there were 4.4 million people in England waiting for elective care pre-pandemic, but now the total is now up to six million, with the NHS estimating it could rise to 10 million.

"I want these people to know that the NHS is open. I want them to come forward for the care they need," he said.

Some 1,600 people waited longer than a year for care before the pandemic, but this figure is now over 300,000, Mr Javid added.

The plan will focus on increasing capacity, including more health care support workers and the greater use of the independent sector to help patients access services, he told MPs.

The health secretary said the NHS elective recovery plan will help address the lengthy waits for treatment - in part by increasing healthcare capacity, staff numbers and an investment of £10 billion over the next three years.

Details of the NHS England scheme were expected to be published on Monday, but the health secretary said the Omicron wave led to the announcement of the plans being delayed.

However, sources told ITV News the hold up stemmed from mounting tensions between the chancellor and prime minister, who the Treasury believes is living on borrowed time.

Pressure to release the plans was immense, as a record six million patients were stuck on waiting lists for non-urgent operations and procedures in England in November.

The suspension of routine surgery during stretches of the pandemic exacerbated existing pressures on healthcare capacity.

MPs have said that NHS staff are under pressure and could quit unless they see “light at the end of the tunnel” in the form of more staff to help them deal with the pressures on the health service.

In a report by the Health and Social Care Committee, published in January, members voiced concern about staff numbers and the NHS having to deal with a record number of 999 calls.

"Now, as we approach a third year living with Covid, the catastrophic impact on patients waiting for NHS care is becoming clearer," the report said.

"During our inquiry, we heard many times that workforce shortages were the key limiting factor on success in tackling the backlog."