Budget 2021: NHS in England to receive £5.9bn to cut waiting lists

By Francesca Gillett & George Bowden
BBC News

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Media caption,
Javid says £5.9bn for the NHS is "new money" to tackle waiting lists

The NHS in England is to receive an extra £5.9bn in this week's Budget, the government has announced.

The money will be used to help clear the record backlog of people waiting for tests and scans, which has been worsened by the pandemic, and also to buy equipment and improve IT.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak called the announcement "game-changing".

Health bodies welcomed the latest pledge but said it would not solve the problem of staff shortages.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said the funding was "new money" and that Mr Sunak would set out exactly where it was coming from during Wednesday's Budget and Spending Review.

More than five million people are waiting for NHS hospital treatment in England, with hundreds of thousands waiting more than a year.

The £5.9bn is on top of the £12bn a year that was announced in September..

That money will be raised through tax increases - the rise in National Insurance and, from 2022, the Health and Social Care Levy - and will be spent on resources such as staffing.

The £5.9bn will be used to pay for physical infrastructure and equipment - not day-to-day spending.

Some of the £5.9bn - £2.3bn - will be used to fund more diagnostic tests, like CT, MRI and ultrasound scans, the government said.

More clinics in shopping centres for scans and tests - which the government had already announced - will be opened.

These will help clear the backlog of tests by the end of this Parliament, the government said.

Also included in the £5.9bn total is:

  • £1.5bn on beds, equipment and new "surgical hubs"
  • £2.1bn on improving IT and digital technology within the NHS

A proportionate amount will also go to the health services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Addressing a real bottleneck

Access to tests and scans is a real bottleneck in the system at the moment, slowing down the ability of the NHS to work its way through the backlog in routine care and, sometimes, delaying the diagnosis of cancer.

It has been known for years the NHS does not have enough equipment to carry out tests and scans. And the machines it has are ageing.

The problems mean as demand has increased, performance has deteriorated.

The aim is to get these tests done within six weeks of referral, unless it is an urgent cancer case.

But currently around a quarter of patients wait longer than that. Before the pandemic fewer than 5% did.

The funding will help, in time, improve the situation.

But the big issue that it does not tackle is staffing - there is a shortage of specialists to carry out these tests.

Around one in 10 posts are currently vacant.

There are various reasons for this, including more part-time working, the numbers retiring and problems recruiting internationally because of the pandemic.

Buying new machines is much easier than training, recruiting and retaining staff. Until that is resolved, many are sceptical about what this announcement will actually achieve.

Waiting lists have grown as routine operations were cancelled throughout the pandemic and people who put off seeking help for symptoms come forward.

Some of those in the healthcare sector warned it was not enough to keep up with costs and demand.

Christopher Rigby, an NHS radiographer from Yorkshire, said: "We haven't got the workforce to staff the hospitals we have now let alone all these new centres."

NHS Providers - which speaks for hospital and other NHS trusts - warned the health service needed more staff to deliver services.

A body representing healthcare leaders, the NHS Confederation, said the funding "falls short of what is needed to get services completely back on track".

Booster invites

The NHS is sending out a further two million invites for Covid booster jabs this week.

The health secretary said "we should actively be looking at" making jabs mandatory for NHS staff, as they are for care workers.

Mr Javid told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he would wear a face covering during Wednesday's Budget announcement in the Commons.

But he said now was not time to activate England's "Plan B", that would make face masks mandatory in many places.

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