My Lords, I pay tribute to the NHS for its remarkable achievements in response to Covid-19, from freeing up an additional 33,000 beds for Covid patients, to maintaining access to primary care by ensuring that 93% of GP surgeries offer video consultations, and swiftly mobilising an additional 65,000 former clinicians to help fight the virus. Learning from the Covid response will naturally inform future service priorities. However, at present, the Government’s focus remains on supporting system recovery and any amendments that may be needed to the NHS long-term plan will be considered in due course.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and echo his tribute to the magnificent efforts of health service staff. I remind the House of my membership of the GMC board. He will know that the NHS entered this crisis underpeopled and under-resourced, and that a huge backlog of work has built up. There have been estimates that as many as 10 million people will be waiting for treatment at the end of the year. There is an issue with cancer patients waiting for tests and treatment. Can he give an indication of the work being done, despite the pandemic, to get the NHS back on track? Surely he agrees that the NHS five-year plan will have to be recalibrated to take account of this.
I thank the noble Lord for his generous comments towards the NHS. Undoubtedly it is true that, after a massive epidemic such as the one we are living through, we will have to rethink some of our priorities and learn from Covid, but I will add a few comments about the restart. The focus on getting patients back into hospital is having a huge impact on cancer waiting lists. Attendance at GP surgeries is increasing all the time, and waiting lists are coming down dramatically. I pay tribute to NHS staff for their hard work on this matter.
My Lords, given that the health protection remit of Public Health England is to be subsumed into the new national institute for health protection, can the Minister tell us what steps Her Majesty’s Government will take to ensure that health inequalities are robustly addressed through programmes of health education and promotion, as envisaged in chapter 2 of the NHS Long Term Plan?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right; health inequalities are a massive priority for the Government. Covid has demonstrated how health inequalities play out when an epidemic such as this one hits the country. That is why we put education and levelling-up on health generally as major government priorities, why we are investing in 50,000 new nurses and 40 new hospitals, and why health remains a number one priority for this Government.
My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the long-term plan has set an ambitious target for 2028 of 75% of cancers being diagnosed at stages 1 and 2. Does he agree that this must involve GPs, and that GPs having face-to-face consultations with patients is the only way that this target will be achieved?
We are enormously proud of the commitment to early intervention on cancer. This is the absolute core of our life science priorities. It is envisaged that we will have a revolution in the diagnostic capabilities of the NHS in order to hit these targets and, where necessary, face-to-face GP appointments will be made available. However, I am not sure that every single appointment needs to be face to face. One of the learnings of more than half of the 100 million consultations that took place between March and June was that telephone and video appointments can be extremely productive.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that late diagnosis causes many disasters in many health specialties? Does he agree that the respiratory programme is vital and has been highlighted by Covid-19? Should we not be training and employing more doctors, nurses and physiotherapists as respiratory specialists across the country in the long-term NHS plan?
I completely agree. It is a grave shame that too many diagnoses happen late. We are proud of our acute care, but it is this Government’s mission to move to a priority around early intervention which will have a huge impact on the quality and length of people’s lives and make modern healthcare more affordable. The noble Baroness is entirely right that respiratory interventions are an important priority.
My Lords, it is not good enough just to praise NHS staff. Will the Government commit to spending a certain percentage of GDP on health as soon as possible? I suggest that 12% of GDP should be spent on health; then we would not have a repetition of this disaster.
My Lords, the long-term plan cannot be delivered without effective community nursing support. Community nurses get people out of hospital and prevent others from being admitted. Currently, the service is short of several thousand nurses. What changes does the Minister expect to be made to get these nurses recruited, trained and operational?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the importance of community nursing, and all community-based healthcare, including community diagnostic hubs. The interest in nurse recruitment has risen dramatically—by 138% in recent months—partly because of our massive advertising campaign and the renewed focus of NHS trusts in community nursing, which will be matched by opportunities to provide training for those who step forward for jobs.
My Lords, in light of the experiences of people relying on social care during the current pandemic, might the NHS long-term plan make some adjustments to account for the need for integration between NHS and social care? When can we look forward to the proposals for radical social care reform, to ensure parity of esteem for the NHS?
My noble friend is entirely right to raise the importance of social care. Undoubtably, one of the things that we have learned through Covid is that the NHS and social care sectors must work more closely together. That was always envisaged as one of the pillars of the long-term plan. It is now an increased priority. That has been witnessed through much closer collaboration in recent months between trusts and the social care industry. We continue to invest in social care, providing councils with access to £1.5 billion for adult and social care in 2020-21, as extra support during this difficult time.
Following on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, I must try to pin the Minister down. Can he commit to publishing a plan for the future funding and provision of social care by the end of this year, as the Prime Minister promised in January? My honourable friend Liz Kendall MP has today written to the Secretary of State about the need for a clear social care winter plan. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that no one with Covid-19 is discharged from a hospital to a care home, to prevent a repeat of the terrible impact that this had in the first months of this crisis?
My Lords, I cannot commit to a social care plan before the end of the year. It will require a huge amount of political collaboration and I suspect it will take longer than the next few months. I remind the noble Baroness that we have a £600 million infection control fund to help social care through the winter.
My Lords, despite additional Covid funding, many NHS trusts are having to cut back on crucial capital investment programmes because of increased financial pressure. For example, some hospitals are having to replace obsolete and ineffective scanners with slightly newer but far from up-to-date models. Does the Minister agree that when the NHS long-term plan is revised, it will need to include a recovery schedule from these perhaps inevitable but nevertheless damaging short-term responses?
My Lords, the Chancellor has made it clear that catch-up support for the NHS to recover from the impact of Covid is an important part of his financial projections. However, I remind the noble and gallant Lord that we are investing in 40 new hospitals. It is a massive capital investment and the impact on our healthcare service should not be underestimated.