Covid: Plan to tackle England’s NHS backlog delayed

Posted: 7th February 2022

A last minute intervention in Whitehall has delayed plans to tackle the backlog of patients on hospital waiting lists in England.

Details of the NHS England scheme were expected to be published on Monday.

The health secretary denied reports the Treasury had blocked the announcement, blaming the Omicron wave for the delay.

However, the government has announced a new online service that will allow people needing non-urgent surgery to get information about waiting times.

Sajid Javid told BBC Breakfast the full plan was due to be released in early December but the emergence of the new, more transmissible coronavirus variant meant the focus shifted to the booster programme.

He said it would be published “soon”.

BBC political correspondent Chris Mason said there appeared to be a disagreement between the Treasury and the rest of government about the plan, with the Daily Telegraph reporting that the department refused to sign off the plans.

But Mr Javid denied this, saying the Treasury was “an excellent partner” and “we have a great relationship”.

“There’s no issue around the money at all. It’s all about just making sure that when you publish something so ambitious and so important, we do want to make sure across government everything is agreed and everyone is behind the plan,” he said.

A government spokesperson said: “We are united in our plan to clear the NHS’s record backlog as we recover from the pandemic.”

A record six million patients were on waiting lists for non-urgent operations and procedures in England in November, with the suspension of routine surgery during certain periods of the pandemic adding to pressures which were already clear before it began.

Mr Javid said the figure would rise before it starts to fall because an estimated eight to nine million people stayed away from the NHS at the height of the pandemic – but it was difficult to know how high it could go.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents the healthcare system, said the delay was “frustrating” as the plan had been agreed with NHS leaders who “want to get on with the work”.

However, he warned that “unrealistic” targets could end up “skewing clinical priorities”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme an unknown number of people were not included in waiting list figures because they had not come forward for treatment during the pandemic and it was important to prioritise those with the most severe need.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said the parts of the plan being held up included measures to free up clinician time, support for trusts working together, use of the independent sector and how funding will be allocated.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that high staff absences caused by the Omicron wave had caused significant disruption and it was important NHS leaders saw the full plan to tackle the backlog “as quickly as possible”.

Analysis – by Hugh Pym, Health Editor

Tackling the backlog of non-urgent operations in England is seen as a key priority by ministers.

With that in mind the chancellor announced his spending plans for the NHS last autumn and the increase in National Insurance contributions to cover extra funding.

NHS England has drawn up a detailed plan for carrying out more operations and making the process more efficient.

Officials want to publish it as soon as they can having got what was understood to be backing from Downing Street – it was widely expected this would be released today.

But over the weekend it seems there was an intervention from one part of Whitehall and full publication was stalled.

The Treasury has not responded directly to reports it wanted the plan put on hold – though a spokesperson said the government was united in a plan to clear the record NHS backlog.

The health secretary said in BBC interviews the delay was because of the impact of the Omicron variant.

One section of the blueprint has been released – a new online platform giving patients more information ahead of planned surgery.

But there is a lot more still to come and NHS leaders in England are keen to press on with new initiatives in the plan.

It’s not clear when the full plan will be published.


What has been announced is an online platform called My Planned Care, which will be launched later this month, to give patients waiting for routine surgery increased transparency about their local hospitals and information they might need while preparing for their operations.

There will also be advice on prevention services, such as how to stop smoking and exercise plans, to make sure people are fit for surgery.

The platform will initially be available through the NHS website but it is expected it will become available through the NHS app in the future.

A third of on-the-day cancellations of operations were due to people not being clinically ready for treatment, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said the platform was designed to improve information for patients ahead of treatment and reduce cancellations.

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