Sajid Javid pledges 15,000 new health workers by the end of March

Credit: PA

The health secretary has pledged to recruit 15,000 new health workers by the end of March as the government warned the NHS waiting list in England could double in size over the next two years.

Sajid Javid, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said the NHS aimed “to recruit 10,000 more nurses from overseas and 5,000 more healthcare support workers by the end of March”.

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

About six million people in England are on the NHS waiting list for treatment, including hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery and tests.

According to the plan, if all 10 million people estimated to have stayed away during the pandemic came forward for treatment, and activity was not increased above pre-pandemic levels, the waiting list could hit 14 million.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Javid said 1,600 people were waiting longer than a year for care before the pandemic but that figure is now more than 300,000.

“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,” he 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.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak during a visit to the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

The plan will focus on “four areas of delivery”: 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”, and increasing activity through dedicated and protected surgical hubs.

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.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the plan was the “biggest catch-up programme in the history of the health service backed by unprecedented funding”.

But Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper said parts of the plan were not “ambitious enough”.

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.”