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NHS: Waiting Lists

Volume 789: debated on Monday 26 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reduce the waiting lists for consultant-led NHS treatment; and to what timetable they intend to carry out such plans.

My Lords, the joint NHS England and NHS Improvement plans for 2018-19, published on 2 February 2018, set out how £1.6 billion of funding announced in the Autumn Budget will be spent on additional elective surgery as well as ensuring that the four-hour A&E waiting times standard is met. The guidance refreshes two-year plans already in place to improve waiting times performance.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Waiting lists at the end of November 2017 stood at 3.72 million. The head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, says that at present waiting lists will grow to 5 million by 2021, and the Minister’s Answer is inadequate in solving that problem. Does he agree with the findings of the Royal College of Physicians research that shows among other things that 45% of advertised consultants’ posts remain unfilled, 82% believe that the workforce is demoralised and 74% are worried about their ability to deliver safe patient care in the next 12 months? What are the Government’s plans to deal with this crisis in an NHS that is underfunded, underdoctored and overstretched?

It is absolutely our goal and obligation to return to the referral-to-treatment standard. It is worth pointing out that the NHS has been dealing with an annual growth in demand of around 4%, which is extraordinary when looked at historically. What we have seen in the plan set out a few weeks ago are important steps to get a grip on that, including halving the number of 52-week waits, halting the growth in the waiting list and delivering more every year. Clearly that is an interim step and more needs to be done; the way to achieve that is by continuing to provide real-terms increases, which we have done and will continue to do, and by dramatically increasing the number of staff in the NHS, which again we have done. We have also increased the number of training places.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that imposing a mandatory time of up to 16 weeks for elective surgery, as it has recently been reported that many clinical commissioning groups are doing, is wrong, and that how long a patient should wait for elective surgery needs to be a clinical decision?

The length of time to wait should always be a clinical decision; I completely endorse that. CCGs have responsibility to manage demand according to local needs, but in the end, it must be a clinical decision.

My Lords, in a written reply to me, HL 5459, the Minister said that vacancy data was not available for doctors, nurses and consultants in hospital trusts in Sussex, Surrey and Kent, whereas local recruitment advisers suggest that there is a real crisis. Why cannot the human resources element of the National Health Service provide that basic data? As the noble Lord seemed to acknowledge earlier, our chances of our reducing waiting lists are much lessened if we cannot understand where the vacancies are and put people in those jobs.

Vacancy data is available. If it was not available on the particular footprint that the noble Lord asked for, I would point him in the direction of data published last week by NHS England on vacancies, which is always a topic of much interest in this House. Over the past three quarters, that shows a slightly improving picture, but clearly there is a lot more to do.

My Lords, under the NHS constitution, no patient should have to wait more than 18 weeks for any treatment. However, there are no specific national standards for waiting times for CAMHS patients, only guidelines, except for under-18 year-olds with psychosis and those treated in the community for eating disorders. What proportion of those CAMHS patients are seen within the agreed times, when does the Minister expect we will see a significant improvement and is sufficient funding earmarked to achieve it?

The noble Baroness is quite right to highlight this issue. There simply are not equivalent waiting times for CAMHS. As she mentioned, we have introduced the first waiting times for eating disorders and early intervention in psychosis. I think she will have been pleased to have seen in the Green Paper published before Christmas that a new four-week waiting time for NHS children and young people’s mental health services will be piloted. That will be rolled out in the near future.

My Lords, in the eight years before 2010, waiting lists and waiting times were brought down dramatically. In the eight years since 2010, waiting times and waiting lists have risen dramatically. What does the Minister think happened in 2010 to change that?

I think we all know what happened in 2010, but it might be worth pointing out that 10 years ago, half of patients waited more than 18 weeks for referral to treatment and that is now only about 10%.

My Lords, given that many consultants report feeling demoralised and worn down by constant pressure from the number of clinical problems they are dealing with and the administrative pressures that they find themselves under, what discussions have the Government had with NHS England, and what discussions has NHS England had with trusts, on ways that consultants and their teams could have better administrative support and better ways to achieve upgrades in equipment that they may need to undertake specialised procedures? At the moment, they are having to apply and reapply for funding, which wears them down and takes away from clinical time.

I shall write to the noble Baroness on what NHS England is doing about the specific issue. I think her real point is about morale. We know that NHS staff do an incredible job under a great deal of pressure, dealing with that rising demand. We are doing two things to try to alleviate that situation. One, which we have talked about, is increased numbers coming through training so that we can increase staffing. The other is pay. Getting rid of the pay cap and allowing for an Agenda for Change pay increase is a good way of saying thank you to those staff.

My Lords, in response to my noble friend Lady Jolly on child and adolescent mental health services, the Minister talked about reducing waiting times for young people and children to see a clinician as something to be addressed “in the near future”. He must appreciate that for children and young people, time is of the essence to get treatment before the situation becomes acute and they reach a crisis. Could he not give a more satisfactory answer on that question?

I said that only because I cannot give specifics and I do not want to hold out false hope. I can say that the Government are providing £1.4 billion extra so that another 70,000 children are seen every year. I think that is extremely welcome. Piloting a waiting time standard is all about making sure that we can reach the right clinical standard.