Waits of longer than a year for elective care will be eliminated by March 2025, according to a plan that aims to increase diagnostic capacity in the NHS
"The main factor limiting progress on addressing the elective backlog and the wider recovery is longstanding staff shortages. Failing to come forward with a long-term workforce plan will undermine efforts to bring down waiting lists and put the NHS’s recovery at risk." Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation
The government has published its plan to reduce the NHS’s lengthy backlog in care, but acknowledges that it will take at least two years for the waiting list to start falling.
Currently six million people are on an NHS waiting list, and Sajid Javid, health and social care secretary, said that the number would probably increase in the short term as a result of Covid pressure easing.
The reduction in waiting times would be achieved by a 30% rise in the NHS’s capacity for treatment, provided by 160 community diagnostic centres – one-stop shops for checks and scans – along with surgical hubs focused on routine surgery away from main hospital sites. This would increase efficiency, Javid said, and reduce the risk of emergency cases leading to cancellations. The diagnostic centres and hubs will be funded through an investment of £8bn over three years, paid for by the increase to national insurance.
Follow-up appointments will be arranged on a case-by-case basis, rather than being arranged automatically for all patients. A new online service, My Planned Care, will inform patients about waiting times and how to prepare for treatment.
Another ambition set out in the plan is that waits of longer than a year for elective care will be eliminated by March 2025, and waits of longer than two years will be eliminated by July 2022. It also states that, by March 2025, 95% of patients needing a diagnostic test will receive it within six weeks.
The plan repeated the commitment, announced in October last year, to make a £5.9bn capital investment in increasing capacity, modernising digital technology and increasing diagnostic activity.
In a statement in the House of Commons, Javid said that the will make the NHS “fit for the future.” He added: “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.”
Javid also announced plans to reduce waiting times for cancer treatment, including a 28-day target for cancer diagnosis by March 2024. Originally this was due to have been introduced last year but was delayed by the pandemic. By March 2023, the proportion of cancer patients starting treatment within 62 days would return to its pre-pandemic level, Javid said.
He added that as part of its recovery plan, the government was asking the NHS to analyse its waiting list data “according to factors like age, deprivation and ethnicity”.
The plan sets out, in broad terms, its ambition for NHS workforce, including improving recruitment and retention, as well as maximising the capacity of the existing workforce. Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said: “The main factor limiting progress on addressing the elective backlog and the wider recovery is longstanding staff shortages. Failing to come forward with a long-term workforce plan will undermine efforts to bring down waiting lists and put the NHS’s recovery at risk.”