NHS backlog to be addressed within three years

9-Feb-2022

Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, reveals ambitious plan to reduce waiting times and provide more than nine million checks and tests

The Health Secretary has laid out his plans to address the waiting time backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic

The Health Secretary has laid out his plans to address the waiting time backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic

The NHS will finally be able to tackle the COVID-19 backlog after Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, unveiled a plan to reduce waiting times and press ahead with diagnostic tests and checks.

Javid told ministers this week that 99% of NHS patients in England will wait less than a year for elective treatment by March 2024.

And he pledged to make greater use of the private sector to carry out an extra nine million tests over the next three years.

A waiting game

The plan aims to tackle the worrying backlog that has built up because of cancellations and delays to treatment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It comes as figures show more than 300,000 people have been waiting for routine operations for at least a year — an almost 200-fold rise compared to the 1,600 before COVID struck.

Overall, there are already six million people — the equivalent of one in nine — waiting for elective procedures like hip and knee operations or cataracts surgery, the highest figure since records began in August 2007.

Unveiling the multi-billion pound National Recovery Plan in Parliament, Javid said: “Just as we came together to tackle the virus, now we must come together in a new national mission to fight what the virus has brought with it.

“We are absolutely committed to tackling the COVID backlog and building a health and social care system for the long term.”

Elective care will never function well if other parts of the service are under significant strain and we are far from finding solutions to the workforce crisis, reductions in bed capacity, and delayed discharges, which remain a fundamental threat to recovery

“Our COVID Backlog Recovery Plan will help the NHS reduce waiting times, give patients more control over their care, and harness innovative technology to free up staff time so they can care for more people.

“This is a vital step in radically rethinking how our health service delivers operations, treatment, and checks as we look beyond the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19.”

Rethinking healthcare delivery

Running to more than 50 pages, the recovery plan promises to scrap waits of over 18 months by April 2023 and waits of over 65 weeks by the following year, with ‘nobody’ waiting longer than a year by 2025.

But the commitment has been made against low levels of COVID infections and could be abandoned in the event of another serious outbreak.

NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: “As we move out of the Omicron wave the NHS is applying the same determination and ‘can do’ spirit we have displayed throughout the pandemic, to address backlogs in routine care that have inevitably built up, and reduce long waits.

“That cannot happen overnight, but we are determined to make the best-possible use of the additional investment and take the best from our pandemic response, including smarter use of digital care and flexible working between teams and trusts, while building this additional diagnostic capacity that will help to accelerate progress.

Just as we came together to tackle the virus, now we must come together in a new national mission to fight what the virus has brought with it

“As we have always said throughout the pandemic, it is vitally important that anybody who has health needs continues to come forward, so that staff can help you with the best options for your care.”

But, commenting on the announcement, the Society for Acute Medicine warned the programme would fail unless the Government addressed the ongoing crisis in A&E departments.

A threat to recovery

Former president, Dr Susan Crossland, said: “While we support developing plans to help reduce the backlog of patients waiting for NHS care, the announcement today from the health secretary is far from comprehensive and fails to address key issues.

“Everyone needs to be clear that plans to reduce the backlog of elective care are inextricably linked to the urgent and emergency care system.

“As we have stated previously, overstretched acute medical services mean that elective beds are used for emergency patients, which exacerbates the problem with waiting lists and impacts those waiting for urgent investigations and surgical procedures.

“Elective care will never function well if other parts of the service are under significant strain and we are far from finding solutions to the workforce crisis, reductions in bed capacity, and delayed discharges, which remain a fundamental threat to recovery.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary, West Streeting, also spoke out after the announcement failed to address ongoing recruitment issues within the health sector.

And Conservative MP, Mark Harper, said the plan should have been ‘more ambitious’.

“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.

“While this plan is welcome, can I ask him [Javid] 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.”

This is a vital step in radically rethinking how our health service delivers operations, treatment, and checks as we look beyond the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19

Responding to his comments Javid said the intention was to deliver earlier than the implied deadline but added that would depend on how many people were still in need of treatment and would return to the NHS and how many new patients would come into the system over the coming months.

The role of technology

And determining this will involve increased use of technology across the sector.

Speaking to BBH, Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, head of healthcare analytics at LCP, said: “The legitimacy of this plan depends on the size of the scale of the problem.

“We know that current waiting lists are at an all-time high, totalling around six million people.

“What we don’t know yet is the number of people who have not come forward for treatment due to the pandemic.

“This hidden waiting list could be double the current known estimates, according to our own research, and would place an immense pressure on an already-overstretched NHS.

The hidden waiting list could be double the current known estimates, according to our own research, and would place an immense pressure on an already-overstretched NHS

“What is absolutely crucial to acknowledge, though, is that waiting lists are not distributed fairly or equally across England.

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“Our analysis has shown that some of the most-deprived areas of the country are now having to cope with the longest waiting times. And these areas must be prioritised in any planned response otherwise we face a population health crisis in some parts of the country and, sadly, an increase in preventable deaths.”

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