Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 25 October.
“Just as we are determined to keep this country safe from Covid-19, we also want to tackle the backlog that the virus has brought with it. We know that ‘business as usual’ will not be enough, so we will do whatever it takes to ensure that people get the treatment they need as quickly as possible. In September, we announced plans to spend £8 billion to tackle the elective backlog over the next three years, in addition to the £2 billion this year.
The House will have seen the announcement of £5.9 billion to tackle the NHS backlog of diagnostic tests and procedures and to support the delivery of millions more checks, scans and treatments for patients across the country. This includes £1.5 billion for increased bed capacity, equipment, new surgical hubs to tackle waiting times for elective surgeries and at least a total of 100 community diagnostic centres to help to clear backlogs of people waiting for clinical tests such as MRIs, ultrasounds and CT scans, as well as £2.1 billion of investment to modernise digital technology on the front line.
This is an historic package of investment that will support our aim of delivering around 30% more elective activity by 2024-25 compared with pre-pandemic levels. That of course comes on top of the work we are doing to strengthen the NHS workforce, who have performed so brilliantly throughout this crisis. All of this is vital if we are to help get our NHS back on track and ensure that no one is left waiting for vital tests or treatments and that we have the right buildings, equipment and systems so that our NHS is fit for the challenge ahead.”
The Minister must by now be aware of the chronic staff shortages in the NHS. He will also be aware of the desperate state of some of our buildings in the NHS, and indeed the inadequate facilities for some of our mental health wards. This announcement mentions diagnostic staff, of which already one in 10 are missing. There is a 55% shortage of consultant oncologists, a shortage of radiologists, a shortage of specialist cancer nurses and, so far, no comprehensive NHS staff plan. Could the Minister tell the House who will run the proposed diagnostic centres? Will it be the NHS? Where will the staff for the diagnostic centres, surgical theatres and to operate the new equipment come from?
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. Since 2010, we have increased the clinical radiology workforce by 48%, from 3,239 to 4,797 full-time equivalent posts. Numbers of diagnostics radiographers are up by 33% since 2010 and therapeutic radiographers are up by 44%. We are offering those who want to join the radiographic workforce at least £5,000 as a non-repayable grant for each year of their training to be a radiographer. Since 2016, we have seen a 26% increase in those studying diagnostic radiography and a 10% increase in those studying therapeutic radiography.
My Lords, the £5.9 billion in the Chancellor’s early announcement is to pay for physical infrastructure and equipment, not for current services. The NHS Confederation says that next year’s NHS funding allocations are nowhere near enough either. Last week, the Royal Cornwall Hospital declared a critical incident in its A&E department when it had 100 patients in the 40-bed department and 25 ambulances queuing. Its ambulance service is also under intense pressure, reporting that 50 ambulances have queued at times—again, that is much larger than the actual department. This is echoed across the country. How will Ministers help A&E departments and ambulance services in crisis right now?
The noble Baroness refers to what she sees as the workforce shortage. The Government are fully committed to supporting our health and care professionals and to making sure that we have the right number of people with the right skills to deliver excellent patient care and support the increased elective activity committed to under Build Back Better: Our Plan for Health and Social Care. The Chancellor will confirm to the House our three-year settlement for wider health budgets at the spending review on Wednesday, which will support the NHS to undertake long-term planning for the workforce and elective recovery. I will write to the noble Baroness on specific staff numbers for A&E.
I wonder whether the Minister would agree that the NHS cannot succeed without adequate social care. In the last seven days we have had two reports that show just how vulnerable the social care system is. Can the Minister sign up to a new agreement to protect the NHS by supporting social care? That was absent in this statement.
I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. We see social care as incredibly important, which is why we will soon have before the House a health and social care Bill to make sure that we look at both health and social care, from birth all the way through one’s life.
My Lords, I welcome the sum of £5.9 million, which comes on top of the additional commitments that were previously made by the Government. However, it remains the case that, with demographic changes, an ageing population and many more chronic diseases and illnesses, we will see a rise in cost. Can my noble friend say whether there is an active plan to look at a forward-thinking strategy as to how we will deal with this funding in the long term?
I thank my noble friend for that question. Last week we had a discussion on healthy ageing and making sure that the population of the UK is able to live healthy lives for longer. That is very much part of the overall thinking on health reform and we hope to have more details in due course.
My Lords, the Minister says that Ministers are dealing with workforce shortages. But surely he knows that, throughout the health service, there is a critical crisis. No one is in charge; it does not seem to be the responsibility of Ministers, Health Education England or NHS England. Who will sort this out and who will be held to account?
The noble Lord makes a valid point on workforce shortages. The Chancellor will confirm wider health budgets at the spending review, which is in only a few more days. We have already increased training places this year and will feed through into the available workforce. Ensuring that we have the workforce necessary to support this expansion will be driven by a combination of things, such as enforced workforce productivity, including from the spending review digital diagnostic investments, which are expected to deliver a 10% to 15% workforce productivity uplift. We are also looking at existing Health Education England funding, which will provide a pipeline for growth in training numbers.
I congratulate my noble friend on an auspicious beginning to his ministerial career. But I also draw his attention to the wording of this Urgent Question, which mentioned an “announcement to the media”. I give strong support to Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the other place for rebuking the Government for time and again bypassing Parliament. The Government are answerable to Parliament—that is fundamental to our constitution. It is an absolute disgrace that, time after time, Ministers blab to the press before making Statements in either House.
The Minister has just said in a previous answer that, to deal with the social care crisis, a Bill will be coming forward. The crisis is now. Care homes are not able to take people and are turning them away because of the lack of staff. You will not clear hospitals while social care cannot hope. What will the Government do now to deal with the social care crisis in this country?
The money that has been announced is for April 2022 onwards, for three years. In dealing with the specific issue now, believe me, we are having conversations within the department and elsewhere about how we address some of the issues that people are raising with us.
Going back to the Question on the Order Paper, can the Minister state whether it is the Government’s intention to involve the private sector in delivering some of these diagnostics? If so, will they be paying the private sector tariff or the NHS tariff?
I thank the noble Lord for that question. It is important that we recognise that this is a public/private partnership and that we make sure that we can rely on expertise and investment from the private sector. On the specific question, I will write to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I point out that the NHS has an insatiable capacity to spend money. I put it to the Minister that political control must be re-exerted over the NHS. Nye Bevan did not found the NHS by asking civil servants to do it. I encourage the Minister to bring a Bill to this House PDQ to get political control back into the NHS and into running it.
I thank my noble friend for the very important point he has raised. A friend of mine with completely different politics from me—probably closer to that of noble Lords on the Benches opposite—once said to me, “The thing about working in the NHS is that we always want more money and we are always looking at how to balance that when we get more money”. I think it is important for the public, but also for workers, staff and patients, that we remember value for money and ensure that we spend as productively as possible.
My Lords, every NHS provider and professional group is telling the Government that the key shortage in the NHS is staff—and staff who are not exhausted. Can the Minister share with the House the evidence that led the Government to conclude that what the NHS needs above all else for the next three years is kit?
The noble Baroness makes a valuable point. We appreciate the hard work that the NHS workforce—doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals—has put in. This announcement lays out how we will be spending on more kit but also how productivity will help take some of the pressures off the NHS workforce.