Generation of children held back as hundreds of thousands wait for key NHS care

Exclusive: Failure to address long delays in care for children will ‘impact Britain for the long haul’, warns Dr Camilla Kingdon

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Monday 26 December 2022 08:03 GMT

Related: Health secretary confronted by mother of sick daughter over ‘terrible damage’ done to NHS

Hundreds of thousands of children have been left waiting by the NHS for the developmental therapies they need, with some waiting more than two years, The Independent can reveal.

The long waiting lists for services such as speech and language therapy will see a generation of children held back in their development and will “impact Britain for the long haul”, according to the head of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

More than 1,500 children have been left waiting for two years for NHS therapies, according to internal data obtained by The Independent, while a further 9,000 have been waiting for more than a year. The total waiting list for children’s care in the community is 209,000.

Dr Camilla Kingdon, president of the RCPCH, told The Independent: “The extent of the community waiting lists is extremely alarming. Community health services such as autism services, mental health support and speech and language therapy play a vital role in a child’s development into healthy adulthood, and in helping children from all backgrounds reach their full potential.

“A lack of access to community health services also has direct implications for children and families in socio-economic terms. Delays accessing these essential services can impact social development, school readiness and educational outcomes, and further drive health inequalities across the country.”

She said health and care staff are working immensely hard, but that without support they will struggle to address the long delays, which will “impact Britain for the long haul”.

The NHS data on waiting lists for children in the community shows that in September more than 61,000 children were on the waiting lists for speech and language therapy and community paediatric services. There were almost 20,000 waiting for physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and just over 15,000 waiting for audiology appointments.

Louisa Reeves, of charity Speech and Language UK, said: “With at least 1.7 million children behind with talking and understanding words due to the pandemic, any delays to accessing speech and language therapy are very concerning. The government must improve access to support for speech and language challenges for families. This includes tools and training for nurseries and schools to spot and help children struggling with talking and understanding words. If they don’t act urgently, hundreds of thousands more children will be at risk of falling behind in education, developing mental health problems, and becoming unemployed in the future.”

Alex Thomas told The Independent that her daughter Madison, who is four, was referred to speech and language therapy services when she was two at the onset of the pandemic. She waited 10 months for her first assessment, but when it took place it was via a digital appointment.

Ms Thomas said her daughter has been affected “massively” by the delays, and that she has been left to complete the activities and therapy for her daughter alone.

“She’s going to school in September and the treatment that she’s had, it’s been just poor... I genuinely feel I am sending her to school at a complete disadvantage to her peers.”

Ms Thomas has been told that her daughter will probably not get the speech sessions she needs before she starts school because the waiting list is so long and the team is “inundated” with children.

Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at think tank the Nuffield Trust, said: “Delays accessing children’s services have an impact now and in the future. Assessments and treatments for developmental problems, including hearing and speech, are one of the areas affected. Without early intervention, these issues can have a longer-term impact on the education, health and wellbeing of young people long into the future.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS is working hard to reduce wait times and improve outcomes for children and young people’s services, including those commissioned by local authorities, and is developing a long-term workforce plan to ensure services have the right numbers of the right kinds of staff over the coming years.”

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