Labor vows to hit NHS waiting target of 18 weeks within five years

  • By Nick Triggle
  • health correspondent

Image source, fake images

The target of starting treatment within 18 weeks for the majority of NHS patients in England will be achieved within five years, the Labor Party has promised.

The party made the promise as it laid out details of how it would begin to make progress on the backlog.

This includes getting the NHS to work more out of hours and making greater use of the private sector.

Currently the waiting list stands at 7.5 million treatments.

Treatment is defined as an operation – if the patient requires it – or the start of pharmacological treatment or any other type of care. Patients can undergo scans and check-ups before treatment begins and be taken off the waiting list, for example if they need physiotherapy, or remain on the list for further care.

The numbers are down from a peak of nearly 7.8 million in September and are still 3 million more than before the pandemic.

Since the end of March, around 43% have waited more than 18 weeks.

The NHS target, which requires 92% of patients to start their treatment within 18 weeks, was last met in February 2016.

Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer is expected to say on Wednesday he will take immediate steps to make further progress on the backlog.

He will point out how in 1997 the Blair government tackled long waits and created the 18-week target.

“Getting the NHS back on its feet and preparing it for the future is personal to me,” he will say. “My Labor government’s first step will be to cut NHS waiting lists, eliminating the Tories’ backlog.”

To help achieve the target, Labor says it will create 40,000 extra appointments, scans and operations a week in its first year, if it wins power. This is in addition to the two million already made.

This will be achieved by getting the NHS to do more in the evenings and weekends, as well as making greater use of the private sector, the Labor Party will say.

The number of scanners in the NHS will also be doubled – waiting for test results is a key bottleneck in the system.

The policy will cost £1.3bn in the first year, Labor says, and will be paid for by clamping down on tax evaders and closing non-dominant tax loopholes.

However, the party has yet to set out its plans for the overall budget: the previous Labor government increased spending by 6% to 7% on average. It has been half in this parliament.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said: “This is more of a ‘copy and paste’ policy by the Labor Party, which has no plan. The NHS has faced unprecedented challenges which it can only overcome if it has the support of a strong economy.

“That is why the Conservatives have a clear plan and will take bold action to strengthen the economy and continue to deliver the technology and innovation the NHS needs to continue reducing waiting lists.”

He noted that in Labour-ruled Wales, waiting lists had also increased. Its wait time goal was last met in 2010.

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: “The Conservatives have ruined the NHS.

“The Liberal Democrats are putting the NHS and social care at the heart of our campaign, ensuring hospitals get the repairs they need, people have the legal right to see a GP within seven days and so they can get a dentist appointment when they need one.”

Sarah Woolnough, of the King’s Fund health think tank, said: “Clearing the backlog in five years would require real effort and focus, and may mean other health and care ambitions will be slower to realize.”

He said that while offering weekend and evening appointments was a good idea and had already worked in some areas, expanding it would depend on having enough NHS staff to take on the extra shifts.

“This is not a fact when so many people report high levels of stress and burnout,” he added.

In February, the global waiting list for routine treatments was 7.54 million, slightly lower than the previous month.

However, when changes to the way the list is measured are taken into account, it means the numbers remained stable rather than showing improvement, compared to the previous month.

There has still been a drop compared to a peak of 7.7 million at the end of last year.

Sunak suggested more patients could have been treated if a long-running strike by consultants and junior doctors had not taken place.

He cited research from NHS England published in March, which suggested around 430,000 more patients could have been treated if there had been no strikes.