Targets to work through the backlog of NHS treatments are ‘very stretching’, and may not be enough to prevent waiting lists from growing, a health service leader warned.
Chris Hopson also called the Government’s lack of support for a workforce plan “incredibly frustrating”.
A record 6.1 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of December – the highest number since records began in August 2007, according to data from NHS England.
Setting out plans to help the NHS in England recover from Covid-19 last week, Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted the number of people waiting will continue to rise for another two years, though he suggested it will start declining by March 2024.
However, Mr Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, described the top-line delivery target set out in the Government’s plan – to reach 130% of pre-Covid elective activity levels by 2024/5 – as “very stretching”.
He told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme: “We simply don’t know how many extra patients who didn’t come forward during Covid are going to come on to the waiting list.
“So we could be actually delivering that 130% headline target – which would be amazing, fantastic – and yet the waiting list would still be going up.
“So we just need to be careful about saying we’re just going to judge NHS performance solely by how big the waiting list is, because we know it is likely to grow because of all those people who didn’t come forward during Covid are going to come forward.”
Mr Hopson went on: “Nobody in the NHS would want a waiting list of this size, but what’s happened is we’ve had two problems.
“The first is we have insufficient capacity in the NHS after a decade of the longest and deepest financial squeeze in NHS history.
“So the waiting lists were already growing before we went into Covid, and then what we’ve had is this huge disruption over the Covid period.”
The health service leader also said a long-term plan to fix the staffing crisis in the health service is needed to cut the waiting lists.
Asked about the NHS’s shortage of 93,000 workers, he said: “I’m incredibly frustrated about the fact that the Government will not sign up to the idea of a proper long-term workforce plan, which is what we have in every other sector of our economy and what we have in every other national health system.
“I can’t understand why the Government won’t sign up to what seems to me to be blindingly obvious.”
He urged ministers to back an amendment tabled by Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary who now chairs the Commons Health Committee, which would require a staffing plan by law.