'Just another cancelled operation': Fury over delays to NHS Covid backlog plan


Labour has blasted the Government for pushing back its NHS Covid recovery plan, describing the delay as ‘just another cancelled operation’.

Boris Johnson had hoped to unveil the multi-billion pound catch-up plan today as he scrambles to get his premiership back on track following a spate of scandals. 

But the publication of the elective recovery plan was bumped as ministers failed to sign off the draft document amid reports of a feud between the Treasury and No10.

Health service insiders suggested the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is dragging his feet and demanding firmer NHS targets in return for funding.

But Health Secretary Sajid Javid blamed the recent Omicron wave during a series of interviews earlier in which he defended the delay and denied it was because of the Treasury.

In a letter to Mr Sunak and Mr Javid this afternoon, Labour’s shadow chancellor and health secretary urged the government not to allow the recovery plan to become ‘another cancelled operation’.  

They wrote: ‘Whatever the internal arguments within the Conservative Party, you cannot play political games with the NHS while millions of people wait for care.

‘If you allow your party’s chaos and incompetence to paralyse the Government, it will be NHS patients who pay the price.’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the wrangling between No10 and the Treasury was ‘more evidence of the chaos’ and ‘incompetence’ in the Government.

There is anger among the Tories’ own ranks over the delay, with former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt describing it as ‘extremely disappointing’.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said it was ‘frustrating’ that the recovery plan was not yet out and warned against any attempt to impose ‘unrealistic’ targets on the health service.

Boris Johnson (right) and Rishi Sunak (left) put on a show of unity during a visit to an oncology centre in Maidstone today

Boris Johnson (right) and Rishi Sunak (left) put on a show of unity during a visit to an oncology centre in Maidstone today


The PM and Mr Sunak – seen as his potential successor –  put on an awkward show of unity today during a trip to a cancer treatment centre in Kent.

Mr Johnson did unveil a target that no-one will have to wait more than two months for a cancer diagnosis.

But that promise was originally set out in the NHS long term plan in January 2019 and will not come into effect for another year. 

Speaking to reporters without Mr Sunak this afternoon, Mr Johnson said: ‘Everybody in No 10 and the Treasury are working together in harmony to deal with the big problems that the country faces and clearing the Covid backlogs.’ 

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  

Mr Johnson did, however, officially pledge for NHS England to diagnose three-quarters of suspected cancer patients within 28 days.

NHS England waiting times for cancer treatment and appointments hit record high

Waiting times for cancer referrals and treatment are at record highs in England as the country emerges from the pandemic, a damning analysis has revealed amid a row over the Government’s NHS catch-up plan. 

An estimated half a million people with suspected cancer will not be seen by a specialist within the two-week maximum target set by the health service this year.

And for the first time ever, the number of patients diagnosed with the disease who do not start treatment within the crucial one-to-two-month window is expected to exceed 75,000. 

Reacting to the figures, which were laid bare in an analysis by the House of Commons library, experts warned the delays could reverse survival rates. Cancer charities said patients directly affected by the waits were languishing in ‘unimaginable distress and anxiety’. 

The Commons library analysis was commissioned by shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, who himself was treated for kidney cancer last year.

It found that, between April and November last year, 290,428 with suspected cancer did not see an oncologist within 14 days of an urgent referral from their GP — a target introduced in 2009.

Despite covering just seven months, it was the most of any full year and significantly more than the 235,549 in 2020. It is the equivalent of around 41,000 late referrals each month. 

The analysis warns that if the trend continues, up to 498,000 people with symptoms synonymous with cancer will not have had their first specialist appointment by the end of the 2021-2022 period in April.

If the projections come true, it will represent a more than 10-fold rise on the 45,000 a decade ago.   

Commons researchers also found a record 12,498 people diagnosed with cancer between April and November last year did not get their ‘first definitive treatment’ within 31 days of their diagnosis.

They warned it could mean that, by April 2022, more than 21,000 confirmed cancer patients will have waited  longer than a month in the past year for care. That would be five times more than the number in 2011.

But there are an even larger number of patients not getting their first treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral — another crucial NHS cancer target,

Among people diagnosed in the seven months of 2021, 32,647 were not given surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy within that timescale.   

During a visit to the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital, the PM said: ‘We want the vast majority of people who think they may have cancer to have a diagnosis either confirming they do or they don’t have cancer within 28 days — we want three in four to have that.’

He also said that ‘nobody’ would wait longer than two months for a definitive answer either way.

But the promises — originally set out in the NHS long term plan in January 2019 and revised in 2021 — will not come into effect for another year, with Mr Johnson saying he hopes to fulfil the pledge by March 2023.

The Government last week teased tough new cancer policy announcements, claiming that it was declaring a ‘new war on cancer’. But figures show 71 per cent of suspected cancer patients in England are already given a definitive answer within 28 days. 

It comes after a damning analysis revealed that waiting times for cancer referrals and treatment are at record highs in England.

The report by the House of Commons library estimated half a million people in England with suspected cancer will not be seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral this year — 10 times more than a decade ago.

The Government originally set out its plan to give a definitive answer to most suspected cancer patients in 28 days in its 2019 NHS long-term plan.

In March 2021, ministers then announced plans to give a diagnosis to 75 per cent of patients within that timeframe.

Cancer care was effectively ground to a halt for some patients during the pandemic, with nearly 50,000 fewer people diagnosed during the Covid crisis and cancer treatment dropping by six per cent.

Around 166,000 Britons die from cancer every year and someone is diagnosed with the disease every 90 seconds.

Meanwhile, a Commons report commissioned by Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting – found that between April and November last year, nearly 300,000 Britons with suspected cancer were not seen by an oncologist within two weeks of an urgent referral — a target introduced in 2009.

Despite covering just seven months, it was higher than the 235,549 figure covering the whole of 2020.

Mr Streeting told the Guardian: ‘Cancer care is in crisis. As this new analysis shows, terrifyingly large numbers of people are waiting longer than they should to receive vital cancer care and treatment with the insecurity of not knowing.’

Speaking in the Commons today, Mr Streeting said the Prime Minister’s ‘new’ cancer targets were embarrassing as the announcement was ‘literally that there is no announcement’.

He said: ‘Today the Prime Minister announced a new target that no-one should wait more than two months for cancer diagnosis.

‘But there was already a target for the vast majority of cancer patients to be treated within two months of referral and it hasn’t been hit since 2015.

‘Isn’t this just another example of the Conservatives lowering standards for patients because they consistently fail to meet them?’

But health minister Edward Argar said Mr Johnson is ‘unapologetically ambitious’ in tackling waiting lists and improving cancer care.

He said: ‘I am under no illusions that our health system is facing an enormous and unprecedented challenge.

‘We are setting out some tough targets for the NHS on cancer. We want to ensure that 75 per cent of patients are diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days of a GP referral.”

Placing a GP and a nurse outside A&E to redirect patients could save NHS millions and alleviate pressure on hospitals, study shows 

Placing a GP and a nurse outside A&E to redirect patients could save the NHS millions and alleviate pressure on hospitals, a trial has found.

Since the start of December a group of GPs have been testing a scheme which places two practitioners at the front door of a hospital’s A&E department.

The duo help assess patients when they arrive and then redirect those who do not need urgent care elsewhere.

As many as 75 patients have been redirected in a single day at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, North West London, for ailments that could easily be treated by a GP or even a pharmacist.

While some turned up for recurrent problems, such as a bad back, one patient even went to A&E because they had run out of Calpol.

Instead of spending hours in the emergency waiting room, creating a backlog in an already-stretched system, they were given the option of booking a local GP appointment that very same day or the next morning.

Those behind the trial predict the scheme — which has redirected 700 patients in total so far — could save the NHS up to 30 per cent in costs and help ease the current pressure on hospitals caused by Covid.

The pilot, which is in place until the end of March, has been commissioned by local NHS leaders and organised by Northwick Park Hospital and Harrow Health — a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of GPs based in Harrow.

Dr Kanesh Rajani, chairman of Harrow Health and a GP himself, said: ‘People go to A&E because they know it’s there.

‘They know that they can access it easily, and they can be seen by a healthcare professional for the problem, but it may not be the most appropriate place for them.

‘The sorts of things people come in for – whether it be a shoulder problem or muscular injuries they’ve had for days or weeks, or a cough they’ve had for a long time, or vomiting and diarrhoea – they want help and advice but they may not know a pharmacist can help them or their local GP.

‘The doctor and nurse will be able to help them and make an assessment and appropriately signpost the patient to the right care.’ 

‘We are working with the NHS and across Government to deliver a targeted and far reaching plan for elective recovery and we will be updating the House at the earliest possible opportunity.’

It comes as ministers face criticism for delays to the publication of the NHS recovery plan which was due to come out today and detail plans on how the NHS will address the nearly 6million-strong backlog for routine hospital care.

Mr Johnson said the Government is putting ‘huge sums’ into the NHS and it is essential to ensure they deliver for patients and for the taxpayer.

He said: ‘We are now working with the NHS to set some tough targets so that we are able to deliver for the patient and also for the taxpayer.

‘Those are very tough targets. We’ve got to make sure that the NHS delivers them.’

The NHS recovery plan was reportedly approved by the Department of Health but failed to be signed off by the Treasury after NHS deadlines for meeting targets were pushed back due to the Omicron wave.

However, Sajid Javid denied the claims this morning and said the Omicron wave delayed the publication.

The health secretary told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We have got a plan, it is being finalised right now, it will be published very soon.

‘We will have some kinds of targets in the new elective recovery plan. Those targets have to be based on clinical need and something that we believe across Government can be delivered.’

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Government has failed to come up with a recovery plan just as the country needs one.

He said: ‘It’s yet more evidence of the chaos, incompetence – particularly of the last three or four months where everybody’s been embroiled in allegations about partygate.

‘There is a price for that, and the price is the Government not getting on with the job.

‘The Government saying ‘We need more time’ is not going to cut very much ice with those people on the waiting lists.’

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who now chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said the delay to the plan was ‘extremely disappointing’.

He said: ‘There appears to be an argument about targets which are the last thing the NHS needs: instead they should be discussing where we are going to find the 4,000 additional doctors needed to address the backlog.’

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said it was ‘frustrating’ that the recovery plan was not yet out and warned against any attempt to impose ‘unrealistic’ targets on the health service.

‘It is really important that we are accountable for public money that is spent, but the danger is that, if you take on targets that are unrealistic, you end up skewing clinical priorities in pursuit of those targets,’ he told the Today programme.

But Mr Argar said said it is important that the plan ‘is the right one and does the job it is intended for’.

He said the Government is ‘determined to tackle the waiting list’ and the plan will be published ‘imminently’. The health minister said it could not be released in December for the Omicron wave.

Mr Argar added: ‘This is a once-in-a-generation challenge and it is absolutely right that we get this plan right.

‘We need to make sure we have the right plan, delivering the right outcomes.’

He denied that the report was held up by the Treasury and said the Department of Health ‘couldn’t wish for a better partner than Her Majesty’s Treasury or this Chancellor, who have shown strong support to our health and care system’.

But Mr Streeting said the record NHS waiting list was a ‘Tory backlog’, as the queue of patients was already at a record level before the pandemic.

He said: ‘More than a million are waiting for scans and tests used to diagnose cancer and the NHS itself is waiting, waiting for the Government’s plan to deal with the backlog. So where is it?

‘It was due to be published today but was pulled last night. It’s like something from The Thick Of It but the reality is worse than fiction. A photo op without a plan, their own NHS recovery plan just another cancelled operation.

‘But don’t worry because there’s a website coming that will tell people they’re waiting a long time even if there’s no plan to make sure that they don’t and then there’s the reason for the delay.’

Tory health minister Mr Argar said there was ‘undeniably a huge Covid backlog’ and the figure will continue to ‘get worse before it gets better’.

He added: ‘Not only that, our best current estimate is that around eight and a half million people haven’t come forward for treatment during the pandemic who normally would do.

‘But we are pulling out all stops to help the NHS recover and make sure patients are receiving the right care at the right time.’


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