NHS backlog poses existential risk to Boris Johnson’s government

Posted: February 14th 2022


The big, but nevertheless important story that failed to knock “party-gate” off its perch….

It wasn’t the sort of coverage Sajid Javid was hoping for. “Is that all we get for £12bn?” thundered the front page of Wednesday’s Daily Mail. The source of its frustration was the health secretary’s admission in the Commons 24 hours earlier that the length of the waiting list for hospital care in England, which now stands at a record 6.1 million people, would continue its relentless rise until March 2024. Javid’s candour came while he was launching NHS England’s “elective recovery plan”, its strategy – endorsed by the government – for addressing and, it is hoped, ultimately reducing that colossal backlog of care. The £12bn a year the forthcoming 1.25% rise in National Insurance will raise via the new health and social care levy will help fund the work involved.

The plan itself is a classically NHS document: 49 pages featuring a blizzard of statistics, examples of hospitals using innovative ways of reducing patients’ waiting times for care and a raft of detailed proposals aimed at “increasing health service capacity ... prioritising diagnosis and treatment ... [and] transforming the way we provide elective care”. However, the bits of most relevance – politically for ministers and practically for patients – are the targets setting out when indecently, sometimes dangerously long, and historically unprecedented, delays for treatment – for new hips and knees, cancer care, heart operations and much else besides – will finally end. Under the NHS constitution patients have a “right” – now often merely theoretical – to receive such care within 18 weeks.

The key targets – which are really just aspirations – include ensuring that by July no one has been waiting more than two years, 18-month waits are eradicated by March next year and one-year waits – 306,996 patients have recently faced a delay of that magnitude – banished by March 2025, and that the waiting list starts shrinking by March 2024, two months before the next election.