Rishi Sunak seeks private care to cut UK health waiting lists in speech

Seven million now languish on lists for operations and treatments

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his first major domestic speech of 2023 on Wednesday January 4, 2023.
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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made reforming the National Health Service the centrepiece of his five-point plan, outlined on Wednesday, to lift Britain from its downturn.

Pledging to improve life in the UK, Mr Sunak used a speech in London to suggest opening up the state-run health system — plagued by lengthy waiting lists — to independent provision as part of his bid to reform the NHS.

This would cut the seven million-strong waiting lists for hospital treatment and reduce long delays in emergency care while preserving the free nature of the service.

The Prime Minister urged voters to trust in his plan as he vowed to be honest about the scale of the challenges facing Britain, but he sidestepped a question from a reporter on whether he would resign if he failed to deliver on his bold pledges.

“I will only promise what I can deliver and I will deliver what I promise,” he said.

Asked how soon he intended to improve the state of the crisis-ridden NHS, he said: “This is an absolute priority for me.

“The country should hold me to account for delivering priorities.”

He refuted the idea it would be wise to postpone elective procedures to help the NHS cope with the crisis, for which he said the Covid-19 pandemic was partly to blame. One of the reasons why waiting lists are so long is because many non-urgent appointments and procedures were postponed at the height of the coronavirus crisis, he said.

The Prime Minister said “the biggest problem” the NHS is facing this winter is the 13,000 patients in wards who do not need to be there but rather “ideally should be back in their communities or in social care”.

The issue is a major roadblock in the “flow” of patients from ambulances through hospitals, he said.

He pointed to the government’s £500 million package for “early discharge” to help get patients into community care as a way in which his administration is addressing the problems in the health service.

“I believe we, in just a few months, will have practically eliminated the waiting a year and a half [list],” he said. “We’ve already eliminated those waiting two years and by next spring I think we will have eliminated those waiting a year.”

The Prime Minister said making use of the private sector to ease pressure on the NHS is a key component of his vision.

“We will always protect the founding principles of an NHS free at the point of use. But what it does mean is an NHS where patients are in control, with as much choice as possible, where we’re comfortable with the NHS using more independent capacity, if that’s what it takes to get patients quicker and better care,” he said.

“We all share the same objective when it comes to the NHS, to continue providing high-quality, responsive health care for generations to come. And that’s what we’re going to deliver. Our vision for change will revitalise every aspect of our lives, better jobs, stronger communities, world-class education- an NHS built around patients.”

He added: "In all these areas and more we must have the courage to change, to think bigger, strive for excellence, not give up when things get tough.”

The Prime Minister denied the Tory government was not open to negotiations with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) amid the nurses’ strikes.

“We’re very keen on dialogue. The government’s door is always open,” he said, when asked how strikes will be resolved without paying more.

But he reiterated his view that the 19 per cent pay rise being sought is not feasible.

Seventy-one days into the job, the Conservative leader is under mounting pressure from opposition parties to come to grips with a series of crises, including helping households amid soaring food and energy bills.

He laid out five bold promises which he asked the British public to judge his premiership on, pledging to:

· halve inflation

· grow the economy

· bring down national debt

· reduce the length of NHS waiting lists

· stamp out illegal migration via the English Channel.

Mr Sunak, who last October became the UK’s first leader of Asian heritage, said his pledges would “deliver peace of mind” to Britons and serve as foundations “on which to build a better future for our children and grandchildren”.

“Those are the people’s priorities. They are your government’s priorities. And we will either have achieved them or not.”

Mr Sunak alluded to the dissatisfaction among voters, including Tory supporters, following a tumultuous year for the ruling party and vowed to restore trust in politicians.

“No tricks … no ambiguity … we’re either delivering for you or we’re not,” he added.

“We will rebuild trust in politics through action, or not at all. So, I ask you to judge us on the effort we put in and the results we achieve.”

He delivered the address at Plexal, a tech campus in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Village in Stratford, east London.

Setting out his ambitions for the year ahead and his ambitions for a brighter Britain, Mr Sunak unveiled the “Maths to 18" drive, aimed at improving the numeracy skills of school-leavers.

He set out his plan to ensure all pupils in England study some form of maths until age 18, saying that with the “right plan”, he sees “no reason” why “we cannot rival the best education systems in the world”.

The UK remains one of the only countries in the world that does not require children to study some form of maths up to the age of 18.

But it was health that took up the majority of his address and where the most detail on his reformist agenda was offered. Asked to explain the growth of patients waiting for treatments, he said he had solutions to reverse the numbers.

“Actually, one of our initiatives to stop that happening again is to create what are called elective surgical hubs and community diagnostic centres where people can get all the scans and the tests they need and indeed the routine electives, like hip replacement and cataracts, away from the acute part of the hospital,” he explained.

“Because if you do that, what you do is really increase our ability to treat people because you don’t have doctors constantly disrupted by doing routine appointments and then having to rush to deal with an emergency.

“That’s the model that works really well. We’re rolling out 300 community diagnostic centres and elective surgical hubs across the country and that will allow us to do both.

“It will allow us to treat our parents, grandparents that are waiting for one of those surgeries that they need, but it will also allow us to treat people in hospitals who need that urgent care.”

Mr Sunak, born in the UK to parents of Indian origin, used his family background to add a personal touch to the speech. He said his father, who was a GP, and his mother, a pharmacist, had instilled in him an appreciation for the NHS.

His speech came after opposition MPs urged him to treat the problems of the NHS as a matter of urgency. Labour has accused the Conservatives of underfunding the health service for the past 12 years, while the Liberal Democrats called for Parliament to be recalled over the Christmas and New Year break to address the crisis.

Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour's shadow health minister who works shifts as a A&E doctor in south London, said the scale of the problems is unprecedented in her career. "I have been an emergency doctor for 17 years and this is the worst I have ever seen our NHS, which is a sentiment shared by most of my colleagues," the MP for Tooting said.

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Updated: January 05, 2023, 5:53 AM