Labour pledges to end long NHS waits for children’s care

Almost 700,000 children are waiting for either hospital or community treatment, data shows

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Friday 12 January 2024 00:10 GMT
'Our children are shorter, fatter, and less happy than kids in other countries', claims Labour MP

Hospital bosses will be ordered to prioritise children facing months-long waits for care if Labour comes into power, Sir Keir Starmer has said.

The Labour leader said long waits for children are “dangerous and damaging” as he vowed to tackle lengthy waiting lists should his party win the next general election.

The party said a Labour government would write to local health leaders – integrated care boards – to give them “strategic direction to prioritise children’s waiting lists”.

Sir Keir said he would personally monitor how fast numbers were coming down, as he warned that long waits for youngsters can impair their mental and physical development at a critical time in their lives.

Responding to the pledge, Dr Ronny Cheung, officer for health services at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told The Independent: “We’re pleased to see the scandal that is the children’s waiting list finally getting the attention it needs. It’s wholly unacceptable to have so many children waiting over a year for treatment.

“A year long wait for a child means a significant portion of their lives are spent in uncertainty or discomfort – time that is crucial to their physical, psychological and social development that they cannot easily get back.”

He said the plans from Labour on how they would tackle the problem are welcome, but the fact remains that children are stuck on waiting lists for care today.

The Royal College said it is calling on the current government and political parties to work together to finally prioritise children.

According to the latest NHS data, at least 406,000 children are waiting for routine hospital treatment, while 226,078 children are waiting for community care.

Labour analysis found that, in November, 180,000 were waiting for treatment for longer than 18 weeks – with at least 18,000 waiting for a year or more.

Sir Keir said: “When children are waiting over a year for treatment, that is dangerous and damaging for their long-term health. Children waiting for huge proportions of their life for hospital treatment is heartbreaking, causes immense stress for their parents, presses pause on family life, and they need to end.

Keir Starmer says that long waiting times for children ‘press pause on family life’ (PA)

“The biggest casualty of short-term ‘sticking plaster’ politics of the last 14 years are our nation’s children. My Labour government will turn this trend around, and I will personally monitor the speed at which we do.

“My government’s mission-led way of working will deliver the change the NHS needs, with a drive from the heart of government to see children’s waits for treatment end.”

In a release about the announcement, Labour did not go into detail about how it would make the plan happen. It has pledged to end waits of more than 18 weeks for patients overall by delivering 2 million more operations, scans and appointments per year. The party said it will pay doctors and nurses overtime to work evenings and weekends.

Last year, The Independent revealed that hospital waiting lists for children’s services had grown faster than those for adults, as paediatric services were deprioritised.

In December, figures published by this paper revealed that at least 20,000 children’s surgeries and appointments, across 40 NHS trusts, had been cancelled during junior doctors’ strikes.

It comes after Labour pledged this week to implement a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm as part of its Child Health Action Plan. The party also promised to introduce supervised tooth-brushing at free breakfast clubs in every school.

Launching the plan on Thursday, the Labour leader was asked questions by NHS staff about his party’s plans for the health service.

Sir Keir told staff at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool that he wanted to turn around the health of children, as he accused the Conservative government of going in “completely the wrong direction”.

The Conservative Party has been approached for comment.

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