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NHS England: Waiting Lists

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce NHS England waiting lists.

I thank the noble Baroness for raising this. It is a top priority for the Government and for the NHS. This year we are providing a record amount of funding to the NHS, with an extra £34 billion. This includes £2 billion this year plus £8 billion over the next three years to step up activity to tackle long waiting lists for elective care and to transform elective services. This funding could deliver around 9 million more checks, scans and procedures.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I figured that that was what he would say. It is not about how much the Government intend to put in but how it is being spent. That is particularly important in the absence of any workforce strategy. If the billions were directed immediately at investing in social care and care workers, for example, both domiciliary and care homes, how many beds does the Minister believe could be freed up in the next eight weeks? What effect would that have on the throughput for elective surgery and accident and emergency departments?

When you look at the data on the waiting lists, what is interesting is that 75% of patients on the list do not require surgical treatment. Most actually require diagnostics. Some 80% of patients requiring surgical treatment could be treated without an overnight stay in hospital, and 20% of patients are waiting for either ophthalmology or orthopaedic services. That shows where you can target the spending to cut the waiting lists.

My Lords, returning to my noble friend Lady Thornton’s point about social care workers, does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable that social care workers are leaving the sector to work in hospitality, supermarkets and other sectors because they are paid more and are given bonuses to attract them? Will the Government now agree—bearing in mind the contribution that more care workers can make to easing the pressures on the NHS this winter—to pay a bonus to care workers over the winter months to show we prize their skills and dedication, as recommended by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and NHS Providers, and to relieve pressures on the NHS?

I hope that the noble Baroness will allow me as much time as her question took to answer. The Government have announced at least £500 million over three years to support the workforce and fund various initiatives. One thing that we are looking at in the Health and Care Bill is how we make sure that workers in the social care sector, whether in private or state-funded institutions, make sure that they earn enough. We have also launched a Made with Care programme, a publicity campaign to encourage people into the social care sector. It involves many existing social care workers, who talk about what a rewarding job it is and how they can make a difference in people’s lives.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm the number of children waiting for treatment for speech and language and for physiotherapy and occupational therapy assessments after their initial assessment? Those treatments are vital for supporting educational development of children as we recover from the pandemic. Are those figures included in the published waiting list figures—and, if not, why not?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. Unfortunately, I do not have the statistics with me, but I shall write to him.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether he is encouraging the use of best practice, including new technology, between hospital trusts? There are still many examples where there is good practice out there, but it is not being spread.

On a point that we touched on last night, in relation to A&E, we have a serious problem. Paramedics are waiting for significant periods of time, which means that they are not getting out on the road to treat other patients. We really need to bring in some drastic measures to ensure that we create a new system. We cannot leave it for months and months because, if we do, the impact will mean that people’s lives will be lost. What measures does the Minister have in mind to deal with this problem?

The noble Lord made a very perceptive intervention last night when asking us to think outside the box, and I gave an example of someone who I know suffers from asthma and forgot to take his blue inhaler with him to another city. His wife went to a number of places to try to get an inhaler from the pharmacy and from A&E, while telling him to stay in his hotel room. In the end, he was told that the only way to get an inhaler was to call the ambulance. We need to think outside the box and be more creative about when those situations occur—it is not necessarily political, but we need to be creative.

On technology, one of my jobs is Minister for Technology, Innovation and Life Sciences. I have been forceful, when talking to the NHS, that we have to digitise and share data. I accept that there are some concerns over sharing data, but the way to have an NHS that is fit for purpose is to make sure that we digitise and share data.

I refer to my work with dispensing doctors. Will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to all the workforce of the NHS? Does he recognise that they are absolutely exhausted? The BMA has forecast that thousands of doctors will leave the profession in the next few years. Will the Government undertake to reinstate the commitment to have 6,000 more doctors by 2024?

In our conversations with the NHS, we are talking about the workforce plan. We are looking at ways to improve the way in which the NHS and social care plan for their workforce. We have committed to continuing to reflect very carefully on points made by noble Lords across the House. honourable Members in the House of Commons and many stakeholders. It is important that we value the workforce of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers whom people often forget about. We should also value all those other workers who have provided services to us during lockdown, such as delivery drivers, postal workers, Amazon workers et cetera. They have all played a vital role, and we should not forget the role of civil society organisations.

My Lords, we all recognise that the NHS and care staff are working under intense pressure. To attract additional members is vital. With that in mind, will the Government be more welcoming to individuals from overseas by easing further their entry conditions for those willing to come and work in the NHS and care sector, including a reasonable period of time for them to remain here?

Immigrants have always played a vital role in our country. If we cast our minds back to the post-war period, there were massive shortages in healthcare but also other public services. Indeed, my own father came over to work on the railways and buses. It shows the importance of immigration and immigrants to this country from across the world.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the fundamental problem confronting the NHS is a lack of spare capacity and resilience? This means that the NHS is continuously running at unsustainably hot levels of bed occupancy. The UK has 2.7 hospital beds per 1,000 population compared to an EU average of 5.2, and significantly fewer doctors and nurses. What plans do the Government have to urgently increase capacity and deal with workforce shortages, which cannot all come from training new people from scratch, given the timescales involved?

If the noble Baroness looks at the statistics relating to the waiting lists, she will see that 75% of patients do not actually require surgical treatment: they require diagnostics. We have announced an investment in community diagnostic centres— sometimes in shopping centres or sports grounds—to make diagnostics more accessible to the public, rather than having to go to a healthcare setting. Moreover, 80% of patients requiring surgical treatments can be treated without an overnight stay in hospital, so they can do that as day patients. This is where we want to focus, along with making sure that we tackle all the waiting lists right across the board.

Nine in 10 NHS chief executives, directors and chairs reported last week that the present system and organisation have become unsustainable. We can only guess at the pain and anxiety of those waiting to be treated. That is really what this is all about. My noble friend Lord Young talked about ambulances and the time wasted waiting outside hospitals. What plan do the Government have to boost the NHS workforce and ensure that there are sufficient numbers to help bring the waiting lists down?

The Government are in conversations with the NHS about the workforce plan and the winter plan. We are looking at ways to tackle the waiting list in more creative ways. As I said, 80% of patients requiring surgical treatments can be treated without an overnight stay in hospital. If we take medical care out to the community, especially at diagnostic centres, we can cut down a lot of the waiting list, but also in terms of the Health and Social Care Bill. One of the reasons is that the NHS has been asking the Government for changes to make sure that it meets the challenges of the future.