Labour pledges to clear NHS waiting list backlog in England in five years

Estimated read time 5 min read

Labour has promised to clear the NHS waiting list backlog in England within five years, with Wes Streeting warning that the health service risks becoming “a poor service for poor people” while the wealthy shift to using private care.

In an interview with the Guardian, the shadow health secretary said that in another Conservative term the total waiting list in England could grow to 10m cases, with healthcare becoming as degraded as NHS dental services.

“I really fear that if Rishi Sunak wins another term, what we’ve seen happen to NHS dentistry – which is a poor service for poor people and everyone else going private – that is what we will see for the whole NHS,” Streeting said.

In one of Labour’s most prominent and ambitious pledges of the election, Streeting and Keir Starmer, the party leader, will use a campaign visit to the West Midlands to promise that the backlog of about 3.2 million people in England now waiting more than 18 weeks for NHS treatment will be cleared within five years.

The party has previously set out plans to use more weekend and evening services to create 40,000 extra appointments a week, along with other measures such as expanding staff provision and using capacity from the private health sector.

This is, however, the first time Labour has made such a specific promise on waiting lists. Healthcare analysts said it was a welcome ambition but could prove tricky to meet.

Streeting said he was aware of the weight of responsibility to hit the target but as someone who had been treated by the NHS for kidney cancer, it was his “driving purpose” to achieve it.

“I feel this enormous weight of responsibility resting on our shoulders at the moment,” he said. “The challenge we face today is far greater than it was in 1997.

“As someone whose life was saved by the NHS when I had kidney cancer, as someone whose family has regularly relied on the NHS in good times and bad, if there’s only one thing that I do with a life that’s been saved by the NHS, it’s making sure that I dedicate my life to saving the NHS that saved me. And that’s my driving purpose. I really hope that people give us a chance to do it.”

He added: “I’m happy to be judged by every single pledge that we set out at this election. As I’ve been saying to people on the doorstep, particularly with Labour’s six first steps, we’ve been so careful to make sure that the promises we make are promises we can keep and the country can afford. Because we know that if there’s one thing that’s in even shorter supply than money at the moment, it’s trust.”

While some of the swifter patient turnaround is intended to come from a £1.3bn annual funding increase, paid for in part by abolishing the non-dom tax status, much of the plan rests on modernisation and efficiency.

Streeting has previously clashed with professional organisations such as the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, but he said there was willingness in the NHS to change.

“I’m talking to you in a practice up in Yorkshire, where the GP partners have led an approach that prioritises the family-doctor relationship and provides a whole range of services added value, from singing classes to help people with respiratory problems to dementia clinics,” he said.

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“There are brilliant people on the frontline. They’re not resistant to change. They are crying out for it and they are desperate for a government to work with them rather than to pull the rug out from under them. So I don’t feel like it’s going to be me versus the NHS on NHS reform. It’s going to be me with the NHS, reforming the National Health Service so that it’s back on its feet and fit for the future.”

NHS waiting lists in England are gauged by a variety of metrics, depending on the time waited. The most recent figures show that among the 3.2 million people waiting more than 18 weeks, just over 300,000 have been on a waiting list for a year or more.

The total waiting list comprises about 6.3 million individuals, just over 7.5m cases. Labour will argue that on the current trajectory that would reach 10m cases in another Conservative term.

While healthcare analysts welcomed Labour’s plan, some said the proposals would fail to provide a “rapid or sudden improvement” in waiting times, while others said it may distract from other pressing health issues.

“Clearing the backlog within five years would take real effort and focus and may mean other ambitions in health and care will be slower to realise,” said Sarah Woolnough, the chief executive of the King’s Fund. “Achieving this ambition to eradicate the backlog within five years would almost certainly require a swift resolution to ongoing industrial action.”

Woolnough said offering evening and weekend appointments was a good idea but it was “not a given” that NHS staff would be interested in doing extra shifts “when so many report high levels of stress and burnout”.

Thea Stein, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said Labour was right to focus on waiting lists. “We support the intention to spend more money on equipment, historically the victim of short-termism,” she said. “However, the sum of money they are proposing will cover only a limited amount of extra care, not enough for a rapid or sudden improvement.”


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