Taskforce launched to help NHS 'maximise' use of private hospitals amid soaring waiting lists

Health Editor Emily Morgan sits down with the prime minister to discuss the record-breaking NHS waiting lists

A group of experts has been challenged to help the NHS "maximise" the way it uses private hospitals to help reduce the record number of patients waiting for care.

Academics and experts from the NHS and independent sector are to meet at Downing Street on Wednesday to look at how to reduce the waiting list for pre-planned care.

Coined as the Elective Recovery Taskforce, it will help the NHS deliver on the target of eliminating all waits over 18 months by April next year and waits of longer than a year by March 2025, officials said.

Waiting lists for people to start routine hospital treatment has risen to a new record high.

A total of 7.1 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of September, the highest number since records began in August 2007.

Health minister Will Quince will chair the first taskforce meeting, which will see the group "focus on how the NHS can utilise existing capacity in independent sector to cut the backlog".

Together they will make a series of recommendations to government early next year on "how the NHS can better commission the independent sector", the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

How bad are the current patient backlogs facing the NHS?

Included within the recommendations will be better communication between the sectors and more information on availability in private hospitals.

According to the DHSC, around 6% of NHS care delivered in October was provided by private hospitals - some 450,000 appointments.

"The NHS is facing an unprecedented challenge to tackle Covid backlogs," said Health Secretary Steve Barclay.

"Hardworking staff have made strong progress but I want to turbocharge our current plans to bust the backlog and help patients get the treatment they need.

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Minister for Health Will Quince added: "We are relentlessly focussed on tackling waiting lists and busting the Covid backlogs and this new taskforce will bring together experts from across the healthcare system.

"Doing so will ensure we’re using all the capacity available to us to improve care across the NHS and independent sector, and give patients more autonomy over when and where they are treated."

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting MP told ITV1's Peston it was "about time" the government used private healthcare capacity to cover shortfalls in NHS provision.

Mr Streeting told ITV1's Peston on Wednesday evening that it was "unconscionable" people who could afford private care were being seen faster than those who couldn't.

He said: "I think if there's bed capacity, treatment capacity in the private sector, let's get the NHS to fund it, let's get people seen faster."

Also speaking on Peston, NHS England's Chief Strategy Officer Chris Hopson, when asked if the plan to give pharmacists the power to prescribe would still happen, said: "Yes we are effectively introducing prescribing pharmacists… They're already in place, we're growing the numbers over time." 

When Peston asked him if he could reassure the public they could still get an emergency ambulance during a potential strike by paramedics, he said: "We are doing exactly what you would expect us to be doing at this point, we are in the middle of conversations with the unions about exactly when and where they are going to strike."Asked about proposals to bring in the army in response to strikes by paramedics and health workers, Mr Hopson replied: "Clearly we will be asking our friends in the army to help us, exactly as we did in Covid. If you remember this time last year, last January, they came to help us. But the NHS, as we demonstrated in Covid, is really good in these kinds of crisis. We do proper level planning and we ensure that we protect patient care as effectively as we can, and that's exactly what we're going to be doing."

Sir James Mackey, national director for elective recovery at NHS England, said earlier: "NHS staff are working incredibly hard to tackle the Covid backlog at a time of immense pressure on the health service with significant progress already made - virtually eliminating two year waits for care - and it’s vital that we continue to support staff to deliver for patients.

"By maximising opportunities to deliver even more life-saving checks and tests, building on the successes of increasing use of the independent sector since the pandemic, we can speed up diagnoses and continue to bring down waiting lists for routine care."