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Reaction to Labour’s plans to slash NHS wait times

Should he be successful in the next General Election, Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to hit the 18-week NHS treatment wait time target within five years, however, industry professionals have expressed reservations. 

As the General Election is due to commence in less than two months, party leaders have begun fleshing out their policies. Part of Labour’s plans include setting a target to start treatment within 18 weeks for most NHS patients in England, which will be hit within the next five years.

medical professionals working

As it stands, 7.5 million people are on the NHS waiting list as they are awaiting treatment – this includes waiting for an operation, starting a drug treatment or any other kind of care. This figure is down from a peak of almost 7.8 million in September last year, but it is still three million times higher than before the pandemic.

To ensure his pledge is successful, Starmer has claimed he will get the NHS to do more out-of-hours work and make greater use of the private sector. In addition, Labour said it will create 40,000 extra appointments, scans and operations a week during its first year in post.

However, Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of the Kings Fund, has claimed that whilst this seems like a good idea, offering extra appointments could result in the burn out of NHS staff.

‘Despite sustained efforts, the NHS waiting list for elective care remains stubbornly high, at 7.5 million. Long waits for care have been brought down before, but it takes time. It wasn’t until 2008 that the last Labour government got waiting times within the target. Clearing the backlog within five years will take real effort and focus and may mean other ambitions in health and care will be slower to realise,’ Woolnough said. ‘Offering weekend and evening appointments for planned treatment and outpatient clinics is a good idea and has already been shown to bring down long waits in parts of the NHS. Scaling this up will rely on having enough NHS staff to take on the extra shifts – not a given when so many report high levels of stress and burn out.’

Woolnough added: ‘Achieving this ambition to eradicate the backlog within five years will almost certainly require a swift resolution to ongoing industrial action. Addressing long waits for care will also need greater government focus on preventing ill health in the first place and, crucially, shifting more care outside of hospitals into the community, so that people’s conditions can be managed without the need for acute care.’

In addition, Chris Thomas, head of IPPR’s cross-party Commission on Health and Prosperity, has said that the target will be hard to meet, but it isn’t impossible.

‘We’re delighted to see the Labour Party adopt IPPR’s proposal of a weekend and evening NHS service to tackle record long waiting lists and support early diagnosis,’ Thomas said. ‘Soaring waiting lists are a dual crisis for our health and our economy. We need to go much further and faster in meeting the sheer scale of the NHS backlog in England – IPPR research has shown that making use of evenings and weekends will make a significant difference.

‘Getting through the backlog in five years will be no easy feat – and it will take significant, on-going political commitment and investment. But it is achievable, and if successful, would improve public health and revitalise our economy.’

Arguably, this promise from the Labour party couldn’t have come at a better time. The latest figures show 43% of people on the waiting list have been waiting longer than 18 weeks and the NHS target, which calls for 92% of patients to start their treatment within 18 weeks, was last achieved in February 2016.

Image: Piron Guillaume

More on this topic:

‘Neglect of social care’ could cause NHS wait times to exceed to eight million

Private healthcare is not a silver bullet for cutting NHS wait times, study finds

Emily Whitehouse
Writer and journalist for Newstart Magazine, Social Care Today and Air Quality News.

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