'Stop the boats' slogan a distraction at UK PM Rishi Sunak's health plan launch

The line was the only part of Mr Sunak's five-point plan to be seen on the screen behind him

British PM Rishi Sunak with 'stop the boats' on the screen behind him during a Q&A session at Teesside University in Darlington
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It was a speech solely dedicated to how the Conservatives intended to fix the UK’s ailing National Health Service.

But for the vast majority of Conservative leader Rishi Sunak’s monologue on Monday, much of the talk on Twitter was about a slogan in the background to "stop the boats".

The line, one element of the Tory party’s five-point plan to turn the country around, was part of a list on a screen behind the Prime Minister.

The five-point plan promises to:

But for the duration of the speech, "stop the boats" was the only line that could be seen — leading to confusion, and criticism, of the Prime Minister's priorities among some, who tagged their posts with hashtag: #stoptheboats.

“Weird to see the PM making a speech to NHS staff, about the state of the NHS, with 'Stop the boats' on the screen behind him,” tweeted one journalist.

The public was also confused in equal measure.

“Sunak doing this whole speech on the NHS with only '5 Stop the Boats' visible behind him is grimly amusing,” wrote another, with the accompanying hashtag, #ToryBrokenBritain.”

Another wrote: “Why is @RishiSunak in a clinical environment being allowed to have ‘stop the boats’ in huge letters behind him? Which managers signed that off?”

The UK’s immigration system is currently in crisis, with a backlog of more than 100,000 asylum claims waiting to be decided as of December.

A record number of people — 45,756 — crossed the channel in small boats in 2022. That was 60 per cent up on the 28,526 recorded for the whole of 2021.

Mr Sunak has promised to take tough action to “stop the boats”.

It includes new legislation to speed up the deportation of foreign criminals who have claimed protection under the country’s modern slavery laws.

Under the changes, which come into force on Monday, the same day as his speech, the government will be able to withhold protections from anyone sentenced to 12 months or more, or convicted of serious offences such as murder or terrorism, as part of a wider crackdown on illegal migrants.

What he was really there to talk about

Mr Sunak was in County Durham to promise to deliver "the largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times in the NHS's history".

During his speech, the Prime Minister pledged to fix ambulance delays and the crisis in A&E, though critics have said serious questions remain about the number of staff needed to improve NHS care.

As part of a new plan for improving urgent and emergency care, the government has set goals that by March 2024:

  • 76 per cent of A&E patients will be dealt within four hours. Currently, fewer than 70 per cent are and the official target is 95 per cent.
  • An average response time of 30 minutes for category-two emergency calls such as heart attacks and strokes over the course of 2023/24. In December, patients waited over 90 minutes. The official target is 18 minutes.

Mr Sunak said his plan meant there would be more beds, more ambulances, more staff and better social care and "if we can deliver on it, I think we will see — in fact I know we will see — the largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times in the NHS's history".

He added: "That is the ambition of our plan that we've set out today ... I feel really confident we can deliver it."

Mr Sunak said that with the "hard work" and the "ingenuity" of NHS staff "we're going to fix this problem".

He added: "We're going to improve things for patients and make an enormous difference to people up and down the country."

Updated: January 31, 2023, 9:30 AM