Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
Our NHS has done a remarkable job of looking after us during the covid-19 pandemic. It is entirely right that, in turn, we protect NHS staff and patients by maximising the effective use of PPE and, of course, through testing. In fact, that is a key part of getting the NHS back to tackling the many operations and treatments delayed by lockdown. I consider dealing with that backlog an even greater challenge.
The Prime Minister introduced the lockdown to protect our NHS. The Government were rightly concerned that our hospitals would be overwhelmed, as we saw happen in Italy and elsewhere at the start of the pandemic. It did not happen here. For that success, not just our NHS staff, but the Minister for Care and other Ministers deserve credit. We ramped up capacity, with former NHS workers coming back to serve. New hospitals were opened, and appropriate agreements were reached with the independent sector. This drive for increased capacity must continue.
Now that we are keeping the virus under control, we need a new national effort to clear the backlog. Led by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and spurred on by the galvanising optimism of the Prime Minister, we should back our NHS to deliver again. It is essential to act. Most of us have heard about patients who have missed treatments or had operations cancelled. Even routine and delayable elective procedures such as hip and knee replacements are crucial for patients. Cataract operations restore sight for our grandfathers and grandmothers, and cardiac operations prevent heart attacks and extend lives.
The message should be loud and clear that the NHS is open for business, but it is also important to stress that official figures have been paused. We must treat the projection that there will be 10 million people on waiting lists as just that—a projection, not fact. Too many hon. Members on the Opposition Benches are eager to hear bad news. Yet there is a challenge ahead of us. The Royal College of Surgeons is absolutely right to call for a five-year strategy to tackle the waiting list situation. There is no blame in that. Although we need swift action, there is no quick fix.
We need to look urgently at long-term recruitment. Those who have joined the NHS during this covid pandemic must be encouraged to stay. Coronavirus is also affecting the capacity of operating theatres. Diagnostics underpin the clinical activity in hospitals and the capacity for MRI and CT scans, endoscopy and laboratory tests are limiting factors on everything that follows.
Back in March, the Secretary of State was right to negotiate a deal with the independent sector, and I hope that coronavirus has ended the lazy assumption that the independent sector and the NHS cannot work in partnership, because that has been a good thing and has helped our NHS to get through this period.
Finally, the NHS needs to become more productive. The people who tell me that are NHS staff themselves. We have already seen GPs switch to virtual appointments and consultations, and this has worked. Technology is crucial, but it is only a start: the NHS can change many care pathways to become more productive; and we can accelerate the uptake of existing treatments that keep patients out of hospitals.
We can and must be ambitious for the future of our national health service, precisely because there is so much good will and its staff are more valued than ever. We must not let the public down. We must not let NHS staff down. This is an opportunity for change, and I am confident that this Government will deliver.