Chaos as Rishi Sunak 'blocks' NHS waiting list catch-up plan

Chaos as Rishi Sunak ‘blocks’ multi-billion pound NHS waiting list catch-up plan that had been due today … amid fears PM’s authority is waning despite ‘reset’ with new top staff and looming mini-reshuffle

  • PM was hoping to unveil a blueprint on how to tackle the record NHS backlog 
  • But last night the publication of the NHS elective recovery plan was held up 
  • Health service insiders suggested Chancellor Rishi Sunak was dragging his feet

The government’s multi-billion pound NHS catch-up plans are still shrouded in uncertainty today after Rishi Sunak was accused of blocking announcements.

Boris Johnson had been hoping to unveil a blueprint for tackling the record backlog for treatments, as he scrambles to get his premiership back on track.

But the publication of the NHS elective recovery plan has been bumped as ministers failed to sign off the draft document. 

Health service insiders suggested the Chancellor is dragging his feet, with speculation the Treasury is demanding tough targets in return for funding – although Sajid Javid blamed Omicron for the delay.

The £12billion a year national insurance hike coming in from April is being allocated to the NHS and social care reforms, with £5.9billion earmarked for investing in elective surgery, diagnostics, and technology over the next three years 

The hold-up will fuel anxiety about Mr Johnson’s authority after the Partygate crisis sparked a welter of calls from Tories for him to quit. Mr Sunak, seen as a potential successor, last week pointedly disowned a jibe Mr Johnson made at Keir Starmer for failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile.

The PM moved to ‘reset’ his top team over the weekend by bringing in former journalist Guto Harri as his communications director, and making Cabinet minister Steve Barclay his chief of staff.

He is expected to make more appointments in the coming days, as well as carrying out a mini-reshuffle of the government’s much-criticised whipping operation.  

Boris Johnson (pictured out jogging this morning) had been hoping to unveil a blueprint for tackling the record backlog for treatments, as he scrambles to get his premiership back on track

Moves to bring down hospital waiting lists have been delayed amid tensions between ministers. The Chancellor is seen hosting a news conference last week

Mr Javid said the plans would be published ‘shortly’, arguing that Omicron had already forced the government to hold off in December.

He told Sky News: ‘We will publish the plan shortly. What I would say about the Treasury is that I couldn’t wish for a better partner when it comes to the challenges I have. I don’t recognise that (suggestion) at all.

‘Having been chancellor, having a close relationship with the Treasury, having a strong partnership for any department is crucial and right now for health and care I am just really pleased we have got that really good working relationship.’

A Treasury source denied that Mr Sunak had blocked the publication of the plan. 

‘We didn’t block, the NHS agreed with us it’s not ready yet,’ the source said. 

But Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘Increasingly getting the sense that Johnson now faces the same (but more intense and short-term) challenges Tony Blair had in his third term, namely that HMT (HM Treasury) is loath to agree to any No 10 plans involving money, as the Chancellor sees these as opportunistic and wasted on a dying administration.’

Mr Taylor worked as head of policy in No 10 under Mr Blair.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, has called for a plan to deal with the NHS backlog in England to be published ‘as quickly as possible’.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We need to see this plan as quickly as possible because trust leaders are really keen to plough on and make their way through these very long waiting lists which have built up during the pandemic, and indeed pre-existed the pandemic.

‘What we’re waiting for is a set of priorities and measures and procedures that will be put in place to support trusts, to enable them to boost their activity levels, so it will be measures to free up clinician times, it will be measures to support trusts to work more effectively together.

‘Critically, it will be measures to help to keep patients well while they wait for their procedures and also be how, perhaps, the independent sector might be used and really importantly, it will be how that £8 billion worth of funding will be allocated, so there is a lot of detail still to see.’ 

Boris Johnson was hoping to unveil a blueprint on how to tackle the record backlog for treatments today

Although the full recovery plan to bring down waits for hospital operations has been delayed, Mr Javid is announcing part of it today.

A planned radical overhaul of hospital operations may allow patients to find out the waiting time at their local hospital.

In the future it is understood people could be able to ‘shop around’ for the hospital with the shortest waiting list and book themselves in for a procedure there directly, no matter where in the country it is. 

The major change to planned operations such as hip replacements and cataract surgery will begin being introduced this month. Anyone booked in for surgery will be able to better understand how long they are likely to wait to go under the knife at their local hospital.

It is part of the NHS’s My Planned Care Platform, set up to help tackle the backlog of almost six million people waiting for operations following the pandemic.

The scheme also involves the roll-out of more than 100 diagnostic centres, providing tests and scans to push people through the healthcare system more rapidly.

The Department of Health and Social Care says a third of on-the-day operation cancellations happen because people are not medically ready for treatment, for example because they have a long-term condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, which has not been managed properly.

The new plan will also involve getting fit for surgery, such as providing advice on a better diet and exercise, or help to stop smoking.

Mr Javid said: ‘At the height of the pandemic the NHS rightly focused on treating Covid-19 patients, but sadly it has meant waiting lists have risen – and the Covid backlog is going to keep rising. This platform… will help us ensure access to life-changing care and support for people no matter who they are or where they live.’

The platform will be launched on the NHS website later this month and is hoped to be added to the NHS app in the future. 

In October Sir James Mackey, who is advising NHS England on dealing with the backlog of care, told an event run by the Health Foundation that the ‘waiting experience is handled very badly’.

He said: ‘People go into the system, get referred to the system, and have almost no interaction that gives them confidence of where they are in the queue, what’s going to happen next, and have no control over that – and I think that’s fundamentally wrong.’

The platform will include waiting times and information to help people manage their conditions while they wait for treatment.

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