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NHS Capacity

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2022

We have worked with the NHS to expand virtual wards and establish a new national discharge taskforce to safely maximise patient discharge and free up beds. We have also announced a delivery plan for tackling the covid-19 backlog of elective care, which sets out our clear vision for how an additional £8 billion will be spent over the next three years to help the NHS to recover and expand elective services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that information. As we look beyond the pandemic, our priority must be tackling the NHS waiting list. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the record number of doctors and nurses working in our NHS shows that the Government are putting the NHS on the best possible footing to meet the challenges ahead?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. Let me take this opportunity once again to thank everyone who has been working in the NHS, especially for all that they have done during the pandemic. We are continuing to invest in the workforce through our 50,000-person expansion in the nurse programme, and we already have 44,000 more full-time employees in healthcare settings than we had this time last year, including 4,600 more doctors and 11,100 more nurses.

The lack of capacity in accident and emergency departments and other healthcare services is a major contributor to the ongoing ambulance waiting time crisis in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State meet me and representatives of the West Midlands ambulance service—as I have repeatedly asked him to do—to help to resolve the crisis?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this matter. As she will know, owing to the pressures of the pandemic we have seen significant challenges for ambulance services throughout the country. Just a few days ago I met the head of the West Midlands ambulance service to discuss some of the issues, and also how the extra funding that we provided over the winter—some £55 million of support for ambulance services—is helping.

May I press the Secretary of State on how the increases in NHS capacity will be maintained over the medium term? His own Department has forecast that waiting lists may hit 9 million or 10 million in the next couple of years. The Government also have a plan to take the extra funding coming from the increase in national insurance and the health and social care levy out of the NHS to fund our long-term social care plans. How are the two to be reconciled?

As my right hon. Friend will know, when I presented the NHS’s elective recovery plan for the covid-19 backlog in the House a couple of weeks ago, I made it clear that we expect waiting lists to rise before they fall. That is because some 10 million people stayed away during the pandemic, and we want as many as possible of those who want and are able to come forward to do so. At the same time, the NHS will be massively increasing its activity, in new ways and with new funding. It is essential for there to be much greater integration between the NHS and social care, and we set our plans in detail in the White Paper published last week.

The Government seem to think that there is some kind of magic staffing tree, but there is no increase in capacity, no elective recovery and no fixing of social care without an immediate and ambitious workforce plan. We have legislation in this place, and we have seen a tsunami of White Papers, but none of that includes a credible workforce plan. Given the estimated 93,000 NHS vacancies and more than 110,000 vacancies in social care, when will we have that plan?

The hon. Lady has just stood up and said that there is no increase in capacity. I am afraid she was probably not listening a few minutes ago when I said that in the last year the number of people working in the health service had increased by 44,000, and that we had 11,000 more nurses and nearly 5,000 more doctors. As for a plan, the hon. Lady may know that I have already asked the NHS to work on a long-term plan—a 15-year workforce plan. If she really wanted a new workforce plan, she should have thought about how we could fund it, and should not have voted against the increase in spending that the Government proposed.

On the subject of NHS capacity, data released by NHS Digital shows that NHS Bury clinical commissioning group had the lowest number and also the lowest percentage of face-to-face GP appointments in England in January 2022. Only 37% of Bury appointments are face-to-face, which is clearly unacceptable and unfair to my constituents. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to find solutions to this serious problem?

It is a serious issue, and I will of course meet my hon. Friend to discuss it further. He may be interested to know that over the winter the Government provided an additional £250 million in a winter access fund for primary care services throughout the country. That has certainly helped to increase the number of face-to-face appointments, although the omicron wave made the process more challenging. As my hon. Friend suggests, it should ultimately be for patients to choose how they want to be seen.