The government’s target to reduce the hospital waiting list in England is facing uncertainty, according to the Prime Minister, who admitted that achieving the goal by next March, as promised, would be “very hard.” The blame for this potential setback was placed on strikes by doctors.
As of the end of July, the latest figures revealed that a record 7.68 million people were waiting for treatment, representing nearly one in seven people and marking an increase of over 100,000 in just one month. The Prime Minister expressed disappointment over the growing waiting list and cited industrial action by doctors as a significant cause.
Before the intensification of industrial action, the government had been making good progress toward meeting its interim target of reducing the number of people waiting for treatment for over a year and a half. The Prime Minister expressed confidence that this target would have been achieved without the strikes.
In response to the escalating situation, the government has announced an additional £200 million in funding for the NHS this winter, building on the £250 million boost already allocated earlier in the summer. This funding will support the provision of 5,000 extra hospital beds and 10,000 virtual beds for patients to receive at-home support from doctors for conditions such as respiratory and heart problems.
However, the opposition, represented by Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, criticized the Prime Minister for blaming striking doctors, calling it a “deeply cynical” move and a search for a scapegoat. Streeting also characterized the breakdown of talks with the British Medical Association as “gross incompetence.”
The waiting list for hospital treatment had been gradually increasing in the years leading up to the pandemic. The onset of COVID-19 led to a significant rise in the waiting list by nearly three million people in a little over two years. Last winter, the numbers appeared to stabilize for six months, but data from March indicated a resurgence in waiting list figures.
Doctors’ strikes, which began in March, have been disruptive, but other factors, such as staffing shortages and canceled treatments, can also contribute to increases in the waiting list. Even after accounting for the impact of strikes, the NHS is conducting fewer operations than before the pandemic. Additionally, the number of people requiring care and joining the waiting list continues to rise.
Junior doctors and consultants in England are planning strikes next week, marking the first time both groups will strike simultaneously in the history of the NHS. Consultants will strike on Tuesday and Wednesday, while junior doctors will initiate a three-day walkout starting on Wednesday. Emergency care will be maintained during these strikes, but further strikes are planned for next month.
Pay talks have stalled, with the government referring to this year’s proposed pay increase of 6% for consultants and nearly 9% for junior doctors as a “fair and final” settlement. The British Medical Association (BMA) has called for renewed negotiations, emphasizing the need to reach an agreement that would end strikes and prioritize patient care.
Louise Ansari, the head of patient watchdog Healthwatch England, expressed concerns that long waiting times for care may be inevitable for some time to come. She emphasized the importance of building public confidence in NHS services, especially as demand for care is expected to rise during the winter months