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NHS: Elective and Cancer Care Backlog

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the reasons for the backlog of NHS elective and cancer care work that pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic.

The backlog in elective and cancer care before Covid-19 was caused by a range of factors including a mismatch in demand and activity, which drove waiting lists’ growth. To address this, the Government have provided additional investment of £33.9 billion by 2023-24 for the NHS long-term plan to grow the amount of planned surgery, cut long waits and reduce the waiting list.

That answer comes nowhere near responding to the NAO report on the NHS backlog published last week. When will we be able to return to Labour’s legal legacy of 92% of patients getting treatment in 18 weeks, instead of the miserable figure under the Tories of 83% because they are running down the NHS, which has led to hundreds of thousands extra on the waiting list?

I thank the noble Lord for this Question on an otherwise quiet day for me. There was growing demand on the NHS before the Covid-19 pandemic, with growing referrals across elective and cancer care. This is driven by an ageing, more affluent population. On what we do about it, we set out our ambitions in the NHS long-term plan. I do not call a £33.9 billion budget increase by 2023-24 an abandonment of the principles. We are looking at the waiting lists and are looking to get them down.

One of the reasons for the backlog is poor patient flow. The key exit block is from hospitals into care homes, and the problem is the lack of staff being attracted into those homes. Will the Government look at some unexpected ways of dealing with this issue—possibly even offering a bonus to members of staff of care homes and the NHS who spend several months working for their service?

The noble Lord raises an important point about making sure that patients are released earlier from hospital into care homes, and into their own homes as well. I have answered questions previously on what is being done to make sure that it is as joined-up as possible. Some 75% of patients on the waiting list do not actually require surgical treatment but are waiting for diagnostics. The Government have invested in rolling out 100 new diagnostic centres. Some 80% of patients who require surgical treatment do not actually require an overnight stay in hospital, while 20% of people waiting for surgery are waiting for musculoskeletal or eye-related surgery. In many ways we know what the issue is—it is targeting.

My Lords, the waiting lists are clearly too long. Will the Government undertake a comparative analysis of whether the backlog pre Covid was better handled in Scotland and Wales than in England?

As the noble Baroness will recognise, health is a devolved matter. It is important that we look at international comparisons, so not just among the devolved Administrations but internationally. That is one of the things we are doing to make sure that we focus, improve and tackle the backlog.

My Lords, of the many millions of people in the growing waiting lists, how many are waiting for surgery and how many for appointments?

Seventy-five per cent of patients do not require surgical treatment, and 80% of those requiring it can be treated without an overnight stay in hospital. One of the ways of addressing that is to make sure that we roll out diagnostic activity. We have allocated £2.3 billion to make sure that we roll out at least 100 community diagnostic centres by 2024-25, not only on NHS properties but in places such as shopping centres.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, wishes to speak virtually. I think this is a convenient point for me to call her.

My Lords, this week the Royal College of Emergency Medicine reports that 40 hospitals have cancelled at least 13,000 operations over the last two months because of the surge in demand, as well as the high number of Covid patients in hospitals. The Government winter plan says that there will be extra beds and staff to help, but there are no beds or spare staff right now, so what are the Government proposing to do before many of these patients end up back in A&E because of their delayed surgery?

One thing that the Government are doing is looking at a number of different ways in which we can think outside the box and be multifaceted to make sure that, for example, instead of patients going directly to A&E they can be dealt with by 111 or other services. In addition, we are committed to delivering 50,000 more nurses, growing the workforce and making sure that we have a trained workforce not only in healthcare but in social care.

My Lords, the NAO report clearly showed that performance against NHS waiting times had been steadily deteriorating prior to the pandemic, and that during the pandemic there were between 24,000 and 74,000 missing urgent GP referrals for suspected cancer. For the most common cancer in the UK—breast cancer—it is estimated that the disruption in screening services during Covid means that 12,000 people are living with undiagnosed breast cancer, 10,600 fewer breast cancer patients started treatment and 20,000 fewer people last year were referred for breast checks. What specific action is being taken to address this deeply worrying situation?

Even before the pandemic there was a growing number of referrals across elective and cancer care. This had been driven by a number of different factors, including people’s awareness of cancer, the symptoms associated with it and media campaigns. In addition, one of successes of having an ageing population is that people face a number of different issues. For example, over half of cancers are diagnosed in patients over 65. We know that we have to tackle this issue. That is why we have published the long-term plan with a £33.9 billion budget.

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interests. Is the Minister content that the NHS has a workforce strategy sufficiently robust to ensure that the extra funds provided can be effectively deployed?

In June 2019 the NHS published a people plan that would improve the NHS workforce, including a dedication to recruit more nurses. We continue to work hard to deliver that commitment. Latest workforce figures show that there are 5,100 more doctors and more than 9,700 more nurses.

My Lords, I will follow on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I believe that the Government have ploughed ever increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money into the NHS. Does the Minister think that the Government have got good value for money?

My noble friend makes an important point. What matters is not just the amount that you put in but the way that you spend it. This is why the Government announced the NHS long-term plan to look at where we should tackle issues and the nature of waiting lists and, given that much of the waiting list is for diagnostics, roll out diagnostic centres to meet that challenge.

My Lords, an exacerbating factor in the size of waiting lists more generally is the number of patients referred unnecessarily to secondary care specialists. One way of addressing this problem is to make more time available to GPs to investigate patients’ symptoms more carefully. Does the Minister agree that, in looking at the overall issue of waiting lists, we have to take into account the needs of primary care as well and not just secondary care?

The noble and gallant Lord makes the very important point that we have to look at the whole way we configure our system of healthcare in this country. Many things that were previously done in secondary care can be done in primary. In fact, some of the things that were done in GP surgeries can now be done in the community in diagnostics centres or even in pharmacies, as many people who have had their booster recently will acknowledge.

My Lords, coming back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker, when will the Government get back to Labour’s figure so that people who are waiting in pain will know when they will get treatment? When will he get back to those historic levels?

The Government have announced the NHS long-term plan. We have had a budget increase. We are focusing on a number of different issues. One of the challenges over recent years has been the ageing population. That should be a positive thing and we want to make sure that we look at the new health challenges that we face for the future.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that one-fifth of patients with cancer are diagnosed in emergency departments across the country? When patients are diagnosed late, the nature of cancer and its progressive metastasising behaviour means that, by the time they are diagnosed, the treatment burden is greater and the cost to the NHS goes up. Early diagnosis becomes the only way to tackle the overall problem.

The noble Baroness makes a very important point—as did the noble and gallant Lord—about how we reconfigure our healthcare system to make sure that we catch these diseases much earlier in the system rather than waiting for secondary referral. This is not only in primary care but lots more self-diagnosis with more technology now in the home and elsewhere.