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UNIONS, medics and opposition leaders are demanding urgent new NHS investment today as reports estimate that waiting lists could hit 14 million next year.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has predicted that the number of people waiting for treatment in England could hit the colossal milestone next autumn, warning that those joining waiting lists could even outstrip patients being treated.
And the British Heart Foundation charity (BHF) estimates today that the queue for specialist heart surgery will be 15,385 by February, approaching twice the number who were waiting before the Covid-19 crisis.
Last month, Health Secretary Sajid Javid expressed alarm that waiting lists could hit 13 million, but the IFS said that number would be exceeded if most of the seven million patients “missing” during the pandemic return for treatment.
Its worst-case scenario, based on 80 per cent of missing patients returning in 2022 and the NHS operating at 90 per cent of its 2019 capacity this year and next, and at 100 per cent from 2023, would see the number joining waiting lists exceeding those being treated.
But even under its most optimistic model, the number of people waiting for treatment would top nine million in 2022 and only return to pre-pandemic levels in 2025.
That outcome would require the NHS to increase its 2019 capacity by 5 per cent this year and next, and by 10 per cent from 2023 — the equivalent of treating about 1.6 million extra patients a year at an annual cost of at least £2 billion.
Economist Max Warner, one of the report’s authors, said: “There is a real risk that if the NHS cannot find effective ways to boost its capacity — a challenge at the best of times, let alone after a major pandemic — then much longer waiting lists will be with us for years to come.”
Nurses’ union RCN’s director Patricia Marquis said the figures “confirm the immense task that lies ahead for health and care services in recovering from the pandemic.”
She said: “If the Health Secretary wants to address the looming waiting list crisis, he should start by investing in the workforce.
“A significant pay rise will demonstrate value and help retain experienced nursing staff whom health services can’t afford to lose with this challenge ahead.”
Healthcare workers’ union Unite said the alarming prediction was “depressing but unsurprising” after a decade of Tory underinvestment.
The union’s national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said: “Covid has brought into much sharper focus the Tories’ failure to address trends that were already in place, such as an ageing population and an obesity crisis, as well as 100,000 estimated vacancies in the NHS — the warning lights have been flashing for years.”
And he demanded that Mr Javid “negotiate a massive boost in funding from the Treasury to fully fund the NHS for the rest of the 2020s, so this dreadful backlog is tackled and, secondly, he should sit down with the health unions to chart a blueprint for NHS recovery post-Covid.”
The BHF’s medical director, Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, said the government had to “act now to avoid more lives lost to treatable heart conditions,” and that addressing the growing heart care backlog was “only the start.”
On top of the 15,000-plus awaiting surgery by next February, the number waiting for general cardiology care could top more than 500,000 by 2014, more than double pre-pandemic levels.
“Tragically, we have already seen thousands of extra deaths from heart and circulatory diseases during the pandemic, and delays to care have likely contributed to this terrible toll,” said Prof Samani.
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Years of underfunding and cuts to healthcare had already left our NHS with ballooning waiting lists before the pandemic hit.
“Given these warnings, it’s now even more urgent that a long-term rescue plan is put in place to give the NHS the resources and staff it needs to bring down waiting lists and reduce waiting times for treatment.”
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