As wave after wave of Covid has crashed against our defences during the last two years, the NHS has managed to stand its ground. Nurses, doctors, cleaners and so many others have put everything on the line to care for patients and families up and down the country. Over this recent omicron wave, the heroism of those who work in the NHS has shone through once more.
But this has not come without cost. Staff have been stretched to their limits and we’ve seen a huge build-up in the Covid backlog of elective care. We know that up to 10 million people didn’t come forward for treatment during the pandemic and it is imperative that as many as possible come forward and get the care they need.
With 17 million cases of Covid-19 recorded, the pressures on the NHS cannot be underestimated and so neither can the scale of the task ahead. The hard truth is that with people returning to the NHS for scans, checks and procedures – and with many people already having waited so long – the total number of people on the waiting list will rise. In the short term, there is no amount of investment or reform that could prevent that reality.
But we must and will turn the tide and it is investment and reform that we need if we are to bring the waiting lists and waiting times down. The moment demands radicalism and that is what we will deliver.
Tackling the waiting lists is not just essential to improve NHS performance – it is a mission with social justice at its heart. Analysis from the King’s Fund shows that, on average, you are almost twice as likely to experience a wait of over a year if you live in a deprived area. If you’re from a poor area, you’ll get diagnosed later, you’ll get treatment later and you’ll likely die years earlier.
Overturning that moral outrage is my mission as Health and Social Care Secretary, and the plan I announced on Tuesday sets out four ways we can achieve this.
The first is increasing capacity – with more patients needing scans and treatment, we need more staff. We want to recruit 10,000 more nurses from overseas and 5,000 more healthcare support workers by the end of March.
We’re also pumping billions into the digital transformation of the NHS in order to build a permanently more efficient and dynamic health and care system. This will mean staff can spend more time with patients, rolling out new technology and automating tasks like patient registration and data uploads.
Secondly, we must rigorously assess the data on the Covid backlog, so that we are doing everything in our power to ensure patients facing the longest waits are getting access to the treatment they need. As well as data, we will analyse factors such as age, ethnicity and deprivation to see how they affect access to treatment, which will allow us to put plans in place to level up healthcare and tackle disparities.
We have set ambitious targets to eliminate waits of over a year for elective care so that, by 2024, 99% of patients will be waiting for less than a year. We have clear targets that will get us there, including eliminating waits of over two years by this July. We will back this with more payment by results and real investment.
The third way we will make progress is by radically rethinking and redesigning how services are delivered. New surgical hubs and community diagnostics centres – one-stop-shops for checks, scans and tests closer to people’s homes – will open in communities and on high streets across the country.
To help with this, the NHS will reduce any unnecessary appointments, including by providing multiple tests at once, and give patients more flexibility to arrange their follow-up appointments as and when they need them.
Finally, we will put patients and their carers in control of their care, with all the information they need at their fingertips. I know how stressful and anxious it can be to wait for appointments and treatment, uncertain of when you’ll be seen. That’s why, on Monday, I announced a new web platform to provide data on waiting times and, for the first time ever, see where you are in the queue.
Data shows that a third of on-the-day cancellations are the result of patients not being clinically ready for treatment. Through My Planned Care, patients will be able to access personalised support ahead of surgery, so they feel ready and we can reduce last-minute cancellations. Patient choice for me is an intrinsic good, I want more of it and we will go further to give patients more power and control.
All of us will rely on the NHS at some point in our lives, and my job is to make sure it’s delivering for us all when we need it most.
This plan is not the last word on reform of the NHS, far from it. But it will help us reduce long waiting times, ensure access to life-changing care and deal with the Covid backlog.
This is a health imperative and a moral mission – and now we need to get on and deliver.
You can read the article on The Telegraph website, at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2022/02/08/tackling-massive-nhs-wa…