The number of patients on hospital waiting lists could soar to 13 million over the coming months as a result of Covid-19 and successive lockdowns, the Health Secretary has warned.
In his first interview since being appointed to the role, Sajid Javid told The Telegraph that “shocking” internal modelling showed that the current record number of 5.3 million patients waiting for treatment could more than double over the coming months.
Mr Javid warned that the pandemic has worsened “non-Covid” health problems, as those who needed medical attention chose not to go to hospitals for fear of catching coronavirus or because of a “very British” attitude of not wanting to overburden NHS staff.
Modelling shown to Mr Javid suggests that some seven million people who would have been “expected in normal times” to seek medical treatment “did not turn up during the pandemic”. The figure includes tens of thousands of people who are believed to have missed out on cancer checks and treatment for conditions such as heart disease, as well as patients officials believe have gone untreated for mental health problems exacerbated by the lockdowns.
On Monday, Boris Johnson is expected to confirm plans to lift sweeping legal restrictions including those mandating mask-wearing and social distancing, from July 19.
Cancer treatment in numbers
Mr Javid said he was “confident” that the changes would go ahead as planned – despite objections by some scientists over rising infection rates. Number 10 said Mr Johnson would “urge the public to continue to use their freedoms responsibly, so we do not put at risk the progress we have worked so hard for”.
Speaking at the end of his second week in the job, Mr Javid also:
- Insisted that a pay increase for NHS staff “has to be a fair settlement”, ahead of planned talks over the issue this week with Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor. He said: “The whole country owes them a huge debt”
- Suggested that raising taxes to fund a “long-term sustainable settlement” for social care may be the “practical and obvious” solution
- Confirmed a review of the NHS Covid-19 app with the possibility of “treat[ing] people differently based on whether they are double vaccinated or not”
- Said there was “every reason to think that we can take a more proportionate and balanced approach to the isolation policy” for NHS staff, amid concerns that the health service’s workforce could be significantly depleted as transmission of the virus increases again
- Announced that “more vulnerable” patients, including those who are immunosuppressed, would be issued with advice on how to “look after themselves” as mask-wearing and social distancing requirements are lifted
Last month surgeons said the NHS reached a “grim milestone” when it emerged that the number of patients on waiting lists for hospital treatment had exceeded five million.
But Mr Javid said that in recent days he had been briefed on internal modelling which showed that the waiting list could more than double.
He said: “What shocked me the most is when I was told that the waiting list is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. It’s gone up from 3.5 million to 5.3 million as of today, and I said to the officials: ‘so what do you mean [by] a lot worse’, thinking maybe it goes from 5.3 to six million, seven million.
“They said no, it’s going to go up by millions… it could go as high as 13 million.
“Hearing that figure of 13 million, it has absolutely totally focused my mind, and it’s going to be one of my top priorities to deal with because we can’t have that.”
Mr Javid said he would be “creative” in attempting to clear the backlog “as quickly as possible”, but admitted: “It will take some considerable time to clear.” Plans under consideration include boosting the number of virtual appointments and drawing on private hospitals to provide care funded by the NHS.
Pledging to make the backlog “one of my top priorities”, Mr Javid said: “I’m not just the Covid Secretary of State, I’m the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.”
Many people “kept their problems to themselves”, he said, describing the phenomenon as “very British and very caring of the NHS”.
Douglas Gurr, the former head of Amazon UK, has applied to become the next chief executive of the NHS, The Sunday Times also reported on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the Lords Economic Affairs Committee, whose members include Lord King, the former Bank of England governor, will this week publish a report expected to question "if the Bank is taking the risk of inflation seriously enough", Liam Halligan writes in his Telegraph column.