Rishi Sunak’s key pre-election pledge to cut NHS waiting lists has been severely undermined after a former Conservative minister branded it a “mistake”.
The Prime Minister himself admitted that the target, set in January, may be in doubt after new figures showed the number of people waiting for routine hospital treatment hit 7.68m.
Lord Bethell, a Tory peer who was a health minister at the height of the pandemic, branded Mr Sunak’s plan to cut NHS waiting times “economically illiterate” and “unconservative”.
The waiting list is set to worsen yet further over the next few months, as insiders admit that a previous forecast that the number would peak in March 2024 may be missed, and it could continue to grow up until the next election.
Mr Sunak provoked anger among unions after he blamed the record waiting list figures on industrial action.
Government sources say they are increasingly optimistic of securing a breakthrough with consultants over their pay dispute, but the deadlock with junior doctors is likely to continue as both sides dig in their heels.
Responding to an announcement by Mr Sunak this week of £200m in funding to help clear the backlog and ease pressure on the NHS this winter, Lord Bethell tweeted: “Literally nothing on prevention. Nothing on reducing disease or reducing demand. It is economically illiterate. Unconservative. And unsustainable. We cannot endlessly fund an #NHS sickness services at this rate. We must pivot to preventing disease.”
And the former health minister told Radio 4’s PM programme the “waiting list pledge was a mistake, frankly”.
Industrial action by nurses and ambulance workers was resolved earlier this year but junior doctors and consultants are still staging walkouts over pay.
Earlier, Mr Sunak said it was “very hard” to meet his targets due to ongoing strikes by NHS staff including junior doctors and consultants.
In January, Mr Sunak pledged to bring down waiting lists before the next election as one of five key promises of his premiership.
Since that target was set, the number of people on the list has risen every month. Mr Sunak told the BBC: “Well obviously that is challenging with industrial action. There’s no two ways about it.
“We were making very good progress before industrial action.”
Asked whether it was possible he would miss the waiting list target, the Prime Minister said: “Well with industrial action it’s very hard to continue to meet these targets, but what I would say is we are making very good progress despite industrial action.”
But chair of the British Medical Association Professor Philip Banfield said: “For the Prime Minister to blame doctors for over seven and a half million patients on the waiting list is just a cheap shot.
“In 2013 there were around two and a half million people on the waiting list and no strikes; just before the pandemic in 2020, that figure was in excess of 4 million, and again no strikes.
“After the pandemic, when doctors had given their all, it had shot up to over six and a half million, and no doctors were on strike.
“The truth is that successive Conservative governments have done little to bring the waiting list under control, done little to alleviate the pain, discomfort and lack of safe care for patients and although the strike action will have added to that disruption and the waiting lists, that increase is a drop in the ocean when you look at the figures and rate of increase overall.
“It’s very convenient to blame the strikes for his failures, but it’s not too late to turn things around. Our door remains open to end these disputes, even if his is closed.”
Government sources said the door to negotiations with junior doctors was open to discuss non-pay issues, but pointed out that other health unions had accepted the recommendations of the independent pay review body.