Hospital Waiting Lists - Question

– in the House of Lords at 12:28 pm on 29 June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 12:28, 29 June 2021

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the time needed for waiting lists for hospital treatment to reduce to the levels they stood at on 1 March 2020; and what plans they have regularly to publish data on waiting times for each (1) medical speciality, and (2) geographical region.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, the horrible dividend of this awful pandemic has been the impact on the wider healthcare service. That is, I am afraid, what epidemics do, but we recognised the threat from the beginning and have worked hard to keep open essential NHS services. We have financed the biggest surge in healthcare spending in NHS history, including £1 billion this year to tackle head on the waiting lists and diagnostic backlog so that we can get back as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, that was an interesting statement but it did not answer any of the Question, which is: what is the Government’s estimate of the time needed to get waiting lists back to the state of a year ago and, secondly, what plans do they have to regularly publish data on waiting times for each medical speciality and geographical region? That is the question; would the Minister like to answer?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, waiting lists are published throughout the NHS and I would be very happy to write to my noble friend with details of the web locations for that data. We are working on the forecasts at the moment. It is not possible to forecast precisely when we can back to where we were, but I reassure my noble friend that a huge amount of work is going on to get there as quickly as possible, including 1.8 million diagnostic tests and treatment for 1.1 million patients since April 2021.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

Even if we get back to where we were in March last year, it will be a status quo in which all the key targets have been missed. When will the Government get back to meeting the targets that they inherited in 2010 with the Liberal Democrats? They have presided over a gradual but disastrous deterioration in overall performance.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, there has been an enormous pandemic, which has, of course, had a huge impact on the healthcare system. During the pandemic, the financial support for the NHS—as well as the system support—has been huge and had a huge impact. We are looking at a backlog and working hard to get through it, but noble Lords should be in no doubt that we are thoroughly committed to getting back to full operational capacity.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, around 10 million people across the UK are affected by arthritis, and the widespread impact of rheumatology conditions costs the NHS over £10 billion a year. The recent British Society of Rheumatology report, Rheumatology Workforce: A Crisis in Numbers, lays bare the shortage of all multidisciplinary staff, including the consultants, nurse specialists and physiotherapists who are needed to deliver the NICE treatment guidelines. This shortage of staff and funding is already impacting severely on rheumatology waiting lists. Can the Minister say how this funding and workforce gap can be addressed with immediate effect? If he does not have the figures and answer to hand, please can he write to me?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The noble Baroness points very well to exactly the kind of challenge that we face at the moment. She is entirely right that conditions such as arthritis and rheumatology require complex combinations and collaboration between many different staff, as well as the application of new and effective treatments and therapies. That is exactly where we are working hard to catch up. I will go back to the apartment, dig out any statistics I can and write to her accordingly.

Photo of Lord Udny-Lister Lord Udny-Lister Conservative

My Lords, waiting lists were too long pre the pandemic and there are now some 6 million people awaiting treatment of one kind or another, many of them in a lot of pain and discomfort. The National Health Service has learned a lot during the pandemic. Will the Minister publish how he intends to speed up the treatment that these people need? Can he also advise whether he routinely uses his private email with his contacts?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, the publication of NHS plans around the catch-up is happening on a regular basis, and there will indeed be further communication from the NHS on this. On the use of private email, I reassure noble Lords that I have read and signed the ministerial code and I seek to uphold it in everything I do.

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench

Specialist surgical hubs have been demonstrated as an effective way of dealing with surgery and would be particularly helpful in dealing with the backlog of cases. Can the Minister say what plans there are for developing specialist surgical hubs, as the Royal College of Surgeons has advocated?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Surgical hubs are exactly the kind of interesting and progressive medical developments that we need to embrace to get through the backlog; in fact, that kind of specialism creates a huge amount of efficiency for the system and a better service for patients. We are working hard to understand how we can use them more effectively, and I would be glad to write to my noble friend with any details we have on the progress that we are making.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, the Royal College of Radiologists tells us that 62,000 patients were waiting six weeks or more for a CT or MRI scan, and there may be as many as 45,000 missed cancer diagnoses. There are terrible shortages of skilled staff, fewer scanners than the majority of comparable countries in the OECD—we have half the number in France and a third of the number in Germany—and about a third of our scanners are obsolete or nearing obsoletion. Given the huge waiting list catch-up that the NHS faces, these diagnostic facilities are absolutely vital. Will the Government provide the necessary investment to address this urgent challenge—and in what timescale?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I agree with the noble Baroness that diagnostics is one area where this country needs to make further investment. In the 2020 spending review, we ring-fenced £325 million of capital spending to support NHS diagnostics; the funding will be spent on new equipment, digitising NHS imaging and the pathology networks. New capacity is also coming through the new community diagnostic hubs and pathology and imaging networks. This work is critical, and we are working hard to make sure that it is effective.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, data from four major studies shows that disadvantaged groups have faced the greatest disruption to medical care during the pandemic. How are the Government ensuring that these health inequalities are dealt with in reducing the NHS backlog, and what targets have been set to deal with this issue?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I completely agree with the noble Lord that the pandemic has illustrated the severe health inequalities that exist across the country as well as the need to address them. The resilience of our health system depends on addressing those who can create the biggest demands on it. There is both a preventive agenda and an agenda for getting through to the communities, to communicate effectively that they can find the treatment they need in their local authority. The Help Us Help You advertising campaign is particularly targeted at the disadvantaged to encourage them to come forward for diagnosis and treatment.

Photo of Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Non-affiliated

My Lords, the original Question requested a breakdown of geographical regions for waiting lists. Workforce shortages will be a continuing problem, and not just for catching up on the waiting lists. Will the Minister recognise the link between training facilities in regions where there are shortages and the ability to fill those vacancies? He will be much more successful in catching up with waiting lists if he pays greater attention to training places, regions and availability.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I completely take on board the noble Baroness’s advice. When it comes to recruitment, it is right that local engagement with local education has to be the way forward. I can report that the recruitment efforts and marketing campaign that we have put in place to recruit 50,000 new nurses, more GPs and more staff across the healthcare system are working extremely well. There is a renewed interest in careers in health—that is one good dividend of this awful pandemic.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

My Lords, the Government’s £1 billion elective recovery fund is most welcome. Will the Minister support this sum being made available every year until we see light at the end of the tunnel? Can he encourage health authorities to redouble their efforts to get the 40 million people in the UK who are overweight to return to a normal weight and thereby begin to release resources to treat more urgent cases, such as cancer patients?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

On the elective recovery fund, I cannot make that commitment at the Dispatch Box but I reassure my noble friend that we are in it for the long haul and we recognise that this will be a major project needing major resources. When it comes to the health of the nation, the obesity strategy is a cross-departmental and energetic programme that tackles the issues that my noble friend is concerned about. He is entirely right that the costs of our healthcare system are predetermined by the overall health of the nation, and that is why we encourage people to eat well and lead healthy lives.