The true size of the patient backlog in the NHS could be much larger than previously feared, MPs have warned, as they say patients have been “abandoned” during the pandemic.
Parliament’s health and social care committee said the NHS faces an “unquantifiable challenge” to deal with patients who have not been treated because many have health conditions that have yet to be identified.
The MPs, who are led by Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, called for a “national health and care recovery plan” to be launched by April, which they said should deal with both the operations waiting list and issues in emergency care, community care, social care and mental health.
They also suggest the Government abandons its “targets culture” when making political promises about the NHS, warning that it has “unintended consequences, including compromises in the quality and safety of paFtient care”.
The report, published on Thursday, lays bare the effect of successive lockdowns on the size of the NHS’s backlog, exacerbated by children not receiving healthcare in schools and the pandemic’s heavy toll on the public’s mental health.
It also claims that the backlog was worsened by a pre-pandemic staffing crisis in health and social care, which was ill-equipped to deal with the additional pressure of staff self-isolating.
A record number of people are waiting to start treatment on the NHS
Mr Hunt said: “Our report finds that the Government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis.
“The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this.”
Pointing to figures showing that 5.8 million patients are waiting for planned care like routine operations, he warned that the number “could double by 2025” and that the NHS faces an “unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic”.
The full report warns that the unknown number of patients includes not just “missing patients” but “people with mental health issues exacerbated by lockdowns and people living with medical conditions who have faced interruptions to their usual care— and whose health may have worsened as a result”.
“There is also a backlog in public health, where children have missed out on universal programmes largely delivered at schools,” it said.
The MPs said they had “heard powerful testimony from patients who had felt ‘abandoned’ by the NHS, who had to ‘fight’ for care, and for whom delays in treatment meant ongoing uncertainty, with lives left on hold.”
Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, is leading MPs in calling for a called for a 'national health and care recovery plan'
The report has been welcomed by the British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors, and comes after Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, warned the NHS’s backlog could reach 13 million patients before it begins to fall.
Boris Johnson signalled on Wednesday that a similar crisis was taking place in dental services, as he warned 11 million cavities had been left unfilled during the pandemic because check-ups had been missed.
Dr David Wrigley, the BMA’s deputy council chair, said the committee’s report highlighted the “gargantuan challenge that the NHS faces”.
“The biggest barrier to tackling the backlog caused by the pandemic is a severe staffing crisis and our calls for improved workforce planning have thankfully been heard,” he said.
“It’s now time for the Government to listen too.”
Mr Hunt and his colleagues warned that while Mr Johnson had promised additional funding for social care, paid for with a 1.25 per cent hike to National Insurance, there was “no guarantee” the money would ever reach care homes.
The levy is temporarily being used as emergency funding for the NHS, MPs said social care risked becoming the “poor relation” of the NHS unless ministers ensure the money is later diverted.