A new report from the Public Accounts Committee accuses the government of failing to act on NHS waiting times and sets out recommendations for meaningful reform.

Published on 16th March, the NHS backlogs and waiting times in England report found that as of the end of December 2021, 6.07 million patients were waiting for elective care, the biggest waiting list since records began. Only 64 per cent of these had been waiting for fewer than 18 weeks, whereas the performance standard requires 92 per cent of patients to have been waiting for fewer than 18 weeks.

The report also found that waiting times were already worsening well before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It states that “the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) oversaw declines in waiting time performance for cancer care from 2014 and elective care from 2016 as they did not increase capacity sufficiently to meet growing demand for NHS services.”

While the effects of the pandemic on waiting times have been much publicised, the report acknowledges that its impacts come “on top of these previous failures and despite the heroic efforts of the NHS workforce.”

The committee also accused the government of a failure to acknowledge the extent to which workforce shortages are already impacting the quality of care, with NHS staff working under “intense and consistent pressure” amid an ever-growing number of staff vacancies. It also claims that at the committee’s evidence session, the DHSC and NHSE&I “appeared unwilling to make measurable commitments about what new funding for elective recovery would achieve in terms of additional NHS capacity and reduced waiting times.”

According to Dame Meg Hillier, who chairs the PAC, “the Department for Health and Social Care has overseen a long-term decline that is dragging our NHS and the heroic staff down.”

NHS member organisations call on government to provide concrete action to tackle workforce and care quality concerns

In response to the report, the Deputy Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery said: “Trust leaders will recognise the issues explored by the PAC within their latest report. We know from our members there are delays across all health and care.

“The government must set out the concrete action it will take to tackle the 110,000 staff vacancies and provide a sustainable workload for the workforce. These staffing gaps are putting significant pressure on quality of care and patient safety. It’s vital the government commits to a robust system for long term workforce planning for the NHS.”

Also responding to the PAC report, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation said: “MPs on the PAC are right to raise concerns about lengthening waiting times in the NHS. We are paying the price for the longest financial squeeze in the NHS’ history during the 2010s. This has left the NHS with over 110,000 staff vacancies, a shortage of key equipment and many buildings in need of repair – all of which has contributed to lengthening waiting lists.”

On the effects of the pandemic, he noted that “we still can’t be sure how many people who didn’t come forward for treatment during the pandemic may now do so. We could be looking at up to 9 million missing referrals of patients for elective care, with anything up to 740,000 missing urgent referrals for suspected cancer.”

Nuffield Trust Deputy Director of Research, Sarah Scobie, said: “Over the last decade, there have been many loud and clear warnings about the gradual deterioration in access to health and care services. Sadly, the impact of growing waiting lists is felt most by the patients who, even before the pandemic, were already waiting too long for life-changing treatment.

“While it is right that MPs highlight the need for the government to hold NHS leaders to account, the health service needs to focus on improving patient care and eradicating backlogs rather than reporting more metrics.

“Most concerning is the fact that we know that things are set to get worse before they can get better. Staffing shortages and the effect of the pandemic on their wellbeing have no quick fixes, and plans set out to boost the number of operations and procedures the NHS can carry out lean heavily on this exhausted workforce.”