NHS waiting lists could grow despite ‘stretching’ targets, health boss warns

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Targets to tackle the backlog of NHS treatments may not be enough to prevent waiting lists from growing, a health service leader warned, as he called the government’s lack of support for a workforce plan “incredibly frustrating”.

A record 6.1 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of December – the highest number since records began in August 2007, NHS England data shows.

Setting out plans to help the NHS in England recover from Covid-19 last week, Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted the number of people waiting will continue to rise for another two years, though he suggested it will start declining by March 2024.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, described the top-line delivery target set out in the government’s plan – to reach 130% of pre-Covid elective activity levels by 2024/5 – as “very stretching”.

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He told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme: “We simply don’t know how many extra patients who didn’t come forward during Covid are going to come on to the waiting list.

“So we could be actually delivering that 130% headline target – which would be amazing, fantastic – and yet the waiting list would still be going up.

“So we just need to be careful about saying we’re just going to judge NHS performance solely by how big the waiting list is, because we know it is likely to grow because of all those people who didn’t come forward during Covid are going to come forward.”

Mr Hopson said the waiting list issue stems from insufficient capacity in the health service following a decade long "financial squeeze", along with disruption caused by pandemic pressures.

He urged ministers to back an amendment tabled by Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary who now chairs the Commons Health Committee, which would require a staffing plan by law.