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Departmental Update

Volume 737: debated on Monday 4 September 2023

I would like to inform the House of several updates from the Department of Health and Social Care over the summer recess.

Cutting waiting times across the United Kingdom

I have offered to work with the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to share lessons on how we are tackling the elective waiting list across the UK, including on where our approaches differ. For example, in England we allow patients a choice of provider—NHS or independent sector—provided they meet NHS costs and standards. I am open to considering any request from Ministers in the devolved Administrations to extend this choice to patients across the UK who are waiting for lengthy periods, building on current arrangements for UK-wide healthcare. I also believe we need to ensure that health data is made more comparable across the UK, and welcome the support of the devolved Administrations in doing so.

Major conditions strategy interim report

As the House is aware, in January I announced my intention for the Department to develop and publish a major conditions strategy. On 14 August, I set out the next steps for this work through the publication of our interim report. This report makes our case for change based on the assets and capabilities of our health and care system, and the needs of the public. It is rooted in a clear understanding of the key areas where making strategic choices over the next five years will deliver real value for the people we serve.

We will continue to work with patients and partners across the health and care system, building on our existing engagement and our call for evidence, and we expect to publish our major conditions strategy early next year.

Mandating quit information messages inside tobacco packs

Earlier this year, the Government announced a series of measures to help the country achieve becoming smoke-free by 2030. This included consulting on introducing mandatory inserts inside tobacco packs to encourage more smokers to quit. On 14 August, we launched a consultation to seek views on the introduction and design of tobacco pack inserts. Inserts provide information on the health and financial benefits of quitting, along with advice on how to quit.

Smoking remains the single leading preventable cause of illness and mortality in the UK. The draft impact assessment published alongside the consultation estimates that the inserts could lead to an additional 30,000 smokers quitting, delivering health benefits worth £1.6 billion.

Expanding capacity to support A&E

Further to our delivery plan to recover urgent and emergency care services and the record funding allocated to the NHS, I am pleased to update the House that £250 million of capital funding has been targeted to support urgent and emergency care capacity this winter.

Thirty schemes across England have received funding to create 900 beds to relieve pressure on A&E and to develop urgent treatment centres and same-day emergency care services that can avoid the need for overnight admission.

Modernising cancer waiting time standards

Following a consultation last year, clinical experts in NHS England recommended modernising and simplifying cancer waiting time standards to focus on three outcome-based standards. These standards will give clinicians greater flexibility to adopt new technologies such as remote image review and AI, and avoid disincentivising modern working practices such as one-stop shops and straight-to-test. I support these changes and will amend the relevant statutory regulations in due course.

There will be a new faster diagnosis standard of a maximum 28-day wait for communication of a definitive cancer/not cancer diagnosis for patients referred urgently or those identified by NHS cancer screening. The faster diagnosis standard, currently set at 75%, will be rising to be set at 80% in 2025-26. There will continue to be a maximum 62-day wait to first treatment from urgent GP referral, NHS cancer screening or consultant upgrade and a maximum 31-day wait from a decision to treat to any cancer treatment starting for all cancer patients. Where services have reduced their backlogs to manageable levels, focus should now be shifted back on to improving performance against the headline 62-day standard. Nationally, we are expecting to achieve 70% by March 2024.

Suicide prevention grant fund launch

On 25 August, we launched a £10 million suicide prevention grant fund to support voluntary sector organisations in helping to prevent suicide in England. Organisations can apply online for funding in 2023 to 2025.

The voluntary sector plays a crucial role in providing support to people experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental health crisis, as well as intervening early to prevent people reaching these points. This grant builds on the success of the fund from 2021-22 that supported over 100 voluntary sector organisations, helping to address demand after the covid-19 pandemic, support innovative ways to widen access to services and help identify those in need quicker.

Supporting efficiency in primary care

In our delivery plan for recovering access to primary care, we announced £240 million of support to help GP surgeries invest in new technology to end the 8 am phone line rush. I can now confirm that more than 1,000 practices in England have committed to making use of this funding to switch from analogue telephony systems to modern, easy-to-use digital telephony. We have also published new statistics on the increases in patient care staff in GP surgeries by constituency since March 2019.

Earlier this year, we published our ambitious NHS long-term workforce plan, which set out how we will invest in more staff and in reforming the way they work. We are now moving forward with our reform plans. We have launched a consultation on allowing pharmacy technicians to deliver more services and secondary legislation on dispensing in original packs has been laid before Parliament so that pharmacy staff will not need to spend time splitting boxes, snipping blisters and repackaging medicines in order to dispense the exact quantity prescribed. We have also launched a consultation on making better use of skilled dental professionals and improving access to dentistry, ahead of a dental recovery plan that is due to be announced shortly.