After Six Months In No 10, Fixing The NHS Is Still Rishi Sunak’s Biggest Test
Rishi Sunak has pledged to bring down the NHS backlogs but the number on waiting lists remains over seven million (Photo: Alamy)
Rishi Sunak has completed six months as Prime Minister, but despite having returned his chaotic party to a state of relative stability and clawed back some points from Labour in the polls, whether he can fix the crisis in the NHS remains his biggest barrier to staying in office.
Reducing the huge backlog for NHS treatment is one of the five pledges Sunak set out in January as tests for his government to deliver. Delays had been steadily rising before the pandemic but shot up to record-breaking levels after tackling Covid-19 caused millions of procedures to be postponed, while many patients delayed seeking treatment for non-coronavirus related problems.
The government launched a recovery plan for the NHS more than a year ago but since then the number of people on waiting lists for consultant-led elective care has cleared the seven million mark, almost double the record high of just over four million under the last Labour government.
Since Sunak made the pledge that “NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly,” the backlog has stubbornly remained above that seven million mark. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted in February that waiting list numbers are “unlikely to start falling rapidly any time soon”, and will most likely "more or less flatline over the next year, and fall only gradually from mid 2024”.
This could be a major problem for the PM in his attempt to turn round his party’s flagging fortunes in the polls, with one Tory MP saying unless there are “visible outcomes” this year then they will be in a “difficult place” come next year’s election cycle.
Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield and a former Conservative vice chair, told PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that if he were to grade Sunak on his performance since taking over from the chaotic Liz Truss premiership last autumn he would give him a “B”, saying he’s “making the right noises,” and starting the right processes to tackle the big issues.
But on the Sunak's five priorities, which also include halving inflation, reducing the UK’s debt and growing the economy, he said MPs still need to see tangible results on the NHS and the small boats issue.
“Fundamentally, you can boil it down to; do people feel in a year's time that they are better off than they are now,” Bradley explained.
“NHS backlogs, obviously the lists need to come down and waiting times have to come down, and people will want to see, by the end of the year, a significant reduction in people crossing the Channel.
"There's some visible outcomes that if we don't manage to deliver by the end of the year, I think we'll be in a difficult place to be honest.”
Bradley was one of a number of Tory MPs invited to celebrate St George’s Day at the Prime Minister's country residence Chequers last Sunday, and said despite the party still being at least 15 points behind Labour in the polls, ahead of next week’s local elections, the mood was upbeat.
“I started quite sceptical to be honest, I didn't support him in the leadership elections, and he's impressed me actually, both in terms of the way that he steadied the ship and his engagement and the way that he's put himself across,” he said of the PM.
Bradley believed under Sunak's influence, the Tories still had “all to play for” in the next election.
But just 10 per cent of voters think ministers currently have the right policies on the NHS, according to a recent poll.
The research by Ipsos for the Health Foundation think tank also found the public is concerned that the NHS is unlikely to get better in the short term, with 62 per cent thinking that the standard of care will deteriorate over the next 12 months, a significant increase from 39 per cent who thought this in May 2022.
Fixing the NHS crisis has been complicated by months of industrial action, with strikes by staff across the health service, which NHS England medical director Sir Stephen Powis warned will put progress on tackling the hospital waiting backlog at risk.
While a deal on pay has been cut with some of the unions representing NHS workers, there is no sign of an agreement with doctors in the British Medical Association, and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) rejected the government’s offer earlier this month in favour of another walkout.
This morning a High Court judge ruled the strike action planned for 2 May would be unlawful after the Health Secretary Steve Barclay brought legal action against the union saying it fell outside of their mandate for walkouts.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said her members would no longer strike on that day, but would continue with the planned action on 30 April and 1 May.
Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the judgement, she accused the government of using "bullyish tactics”, and said it was the "darkest day" of the long-running dispute so far, urging Barclay to "get into a negotiating room”.
"They have won their legal battle today,” Cullen said. “But what this has led to is they have lost nursing and they've lost the public.
"They've taken the most trusted profession through the courts, by the least trusted people.”
- Subscribe to The Rundown podcast here to hear the full discussion on Sunak's six months in No 10.
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