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Elective Care Recovery

Volume 818: debated on Monday 7 February 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question made in another place:

“Mr Speaker, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on healthcare systems everywhere. The NHS has performed incredibly, caring for Covid and non-Covid patients alike and delivering the vaccination programme that has helped us to open up this country once again. Throughout the pandemic, we had to take steps to make sure that we could treat those with the greatest clinical need and that we provided a safe environment for those who needed Covid care.

As a result, there is undeniably a huge Covid backlog that needs urgent attention. The number of people waiting for care in England now stands at around 6 million, and we know that this figure will get worse before it gets better. Not only that, but our current best estimate is that 8.5 million people who would normally come forward for treatment have not done so during the pandemic. But we are pulling out all the stops to help the NHS recover and to make sure that patients are receiving the right care at the right time.

Honourable Members will be aware that the Government have invested more than £8 billion in the NHS in the three years from 2022-23 to 2024-25. As part of the new health and social care levy, we will be putting huge levels of investment into health and social care over the coming three years. All the time we are announcing new solutions for how we can make sure that the NHS is on the firmest footing for the future.

On Friday we launched a call for evidence that will inform an ambitious new vision for how we will lead the world in cancer care. As the Prime Minister announced earlier today, we are setting out some tough targets on cancer. We want to ensure that 75% of patients are diagnosed with cancer or have cancer ruled out within 28 days of a GP referral, and to get the backlog of people waiting more than two months for their cancer treatment to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023. Today the NHS has also announced the launch of a new platform, My Planned Care, which will provide patients and their carers with relevant and up-to-date information ahead of planned treatment. This includes information on waiting times for their provider.

I am under no illusions about the fact that our health system is facing an enormous and unprecedented challenge. That is why we are doing everything in our power to support the NHS and its patients, recovering services to reduce waiting times and deliver more checks, operations and treatments. We are faced with a once-in-a-generation challenge. We know that we must get this right. We are working with the NHS and across Government to deliver a targeted and far-reaching plan for elective recovery, and we will update the House at the earliest possible opportunity.”

I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer; I am very glad that he did not bash the Dispatch Box. I remind noble Lords that this Urgent Question is only 10 minutes, so let us have quick questions. The facts that 1.1 million people are waiting for scans and tests, and that the House of Commons Library says that half a million people with suspected cancer will wait longer than the two-week target, mean that it is a shame that the Government’s plan to deal with this, which was due to be published today, was pulled late last night. I will not speculate about whether this was an argument between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I really hope that the Government are not playing political games with our NHS while 6 million people wait for care. Will the Minister please tell us when the elective recovery plan is now due to be published? Not that long ago, the Prime Minister announced a new target that no one should wait more than two months for a diagnosis. Is that an example of lowering standards because this Government have failed to meet them, or is it a temporary measure?

I thank the noble Baroness for not speculating. All I can say about the elective recovery plan is that there have been active discussions between my department and the Treasury, and we expect to publish it very soon. On waiting lists, we are looking at how we can best target the backlog. We know that about 75% of patients do not require surgical treatment but require diagnostics. About 80% of patients requiring surgical treatment can be treated without an overnight stay in hospital. Around 20% of patients are waiting for either ophthalmology or orthopaedic services. We are quite clear about what the issue is, and we hope to publish the elective recovery plan very soon.

My Lords, the Government have set out in some detail the scale of the waiting list for elective surgery in secondary care, but are absolutely silent on the backlog in primary care. Is that because there is no plan to deal with the backlog in primary care, which has an inevitable knock-on effect on hospital care?

We are looking at elective recovery all the way through; some of that will be in secondary care but, clearly, some of that will be in primary care. One of the issues that we want to be sure of is that we have more and more diagnoses, which is why we have rolled out many community diagnostic centres. We are looking to tackle the complete backlog, which is why we have committed an additional £2 billion this year and £8 billion over the next three years and why we will publish the elective recovery plan very soon.

My Lords, there are 20,000 more cases of cancer in the deprived population compared to other populations. Deprived people not only get cancers at a higher incidence but have late diagnoses, find it difficult to access the services and die earlier. What plans do the Government have to address this inequality in cancer outcomes?

The noble Lord raises an important point. He may well have seen coverage last week about the cancer plan as well as the Secretary of State’s commitment to what he called a “war on cancer”, given his own experience and how many people have experience of losing a relative or loved one to cancer. That shows that diagnosis and treatment of cancer remain the top priority, and they will be prioritised with increased elective capacity. We encourage anyone with potential cancer symptoms to come forward. On health inequalities, the systems will be expected to analyse their waiting-list data by relevant characteristics, including age, deprivation and ethnicity, and by speciality. The aim is to develop a better understanding of local variations in access to and experience of treatment and to start developing detailed operational action plans to address any inequalities in treatment.

My Lords, will the plan contain workforce assumptions? In particular, what will it say about the retention of current staff, the recruitment of more staff and more training places?

The noble Lord rightly raises the issue of our brilliant workforce, who are at the heart of our plans for recovering services. The NHS’s delivery plans are focused on how we can transform these services and do things differently, not just asking staff to do more of the same. The monthly workforce statistics for November 2021 show that a record number of staff are working in the NHS, with over 1.2 million full-time-equivalent staff, which is over 1.3 million in headcount. This includes record numbers of doctors and nurses. In addition, we are recruiting new staff and focusing on different recruitment programmes and on retention, which many noble Lords have raised. We want to make sure that the excellent staff in our health system are happy and kept happy.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of King’s Health Partners. The Minister rightly identified that an important proportion of this increased waiting list is those requiring elective surgical intervention. How does he propose that the additional capacity will be created to address this important demand, beyond the question on an appropriate workforce just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, as well as infrastructure and, beyond that, the development of novel models of care that ensure that elective surgery can be delivered safely and to a high standard?

We hope that the funding will deliver around 9 million more checks, scans and procedures, and we hope to support our aim for the NHS to deliver around 30% more elective activity by 2024-25, compared to pre-pandemic levels. As part of that, we have allocated £2.3 billion to increase the volume of diagnostic activity, and we are rolling out at least 100 further community diagnostic centres by 2024-25 to help with the backlogs of people waiting for clinical tests such as MRIs, ultrasounds and CT scans. These increases will allow the NHS to carry out 4.5 million additional scans by 2024-25, increasing capacity and enabling earlier diagnosis.

My Lords, today I received a message from a member of the public who said that a relative had been told by their NHS doctor that they could not even give them a timeframe for when treatment would be available, but that they could ring a private hospital where treatment would be available in a couple of weeks. Does the Minister acknowledge that there is a real conflict in resources between private and public? What will the Government do to deal with people left in that really difficult situation?

The Government clearly recognise that there is a backlog, which is why we have announced the additional funding. We hope to announce the elective recovery plan very soon. The other measure that we have taken is launching My Planned Care, which allows NHS providers to upload supportive information to the platform to help patients to manage their conditions while they wait for treatment. There will also be personalised support, including advice on prevention services et cetera. We also hope that, eventually, it will have more data on expected waiting times, for example, so there will be more information for the patient. At the same time, we hope that the additional investment that we have announced will help to tackle the backlog in elective recovery.

My Lords, the 10-year cancer plan makes no mention of what new investment the Government will make towards achieving this world-beating plan. Compare that to what President Biden had said: that he intends to invest $2 trillion to find cures for cancers in a new, DARPA-style health ARPA. What investment are we going to make?

If you look at international comparisons, the situation is clear, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that he does not think it is good enough. That is why we have the cancer plan, which we will target. We understand the importance of speed and efficiency in dealing with potential cancer patients. That is why the Prime Minister announced the ambitious target to ensure that 75% of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer will be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days.

All the conversations I have had in the department about investing in research—an issue that many noble Lords have rightly raised—have been about the importance of research being not a bolt-on but integral to what clinicians do, and of it feeding in to better treatment for patients. Given that cancer is one of the Government’s priorities, I hope that far more research will feed in to better clinical outcomes.