Rishi Sunak to hand NHS £6bn to tackle waiting lists and boost tech

Chancellor says sum will get health service ‘back on track’ – but falls short of previous demands from NHS leaders

Adam Forrest
Sunday 24 October 2021 22:30 BST
Chancellor Rishi Sunak during a visit to Hammersmith Hospital, west London in February 2021
Chancellor Rishi Sunak during a visit to Hammersmith Hospital, west London in February 2021 (PA)

A £5.9bn billion package aimed at tackling NHS waiting lists in England will form part of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s autumn Budget, the Treasury has said.

However, previous estimates suggest the sum may not be enough to clear the enormous backlog in care and end long delays faced by patients.

The number of people waiting for routine hospital treatment in England has hit 5.6 million people, the latest NHS figures show – the highest number since records began in 2007.

The chancellor will set out £3.8bn in extra spending to get the health service “back on track” after the Covid crisis, with investment going into diagnostic services, surgical hubs and boosting bed capacity.

Roughly £2.1bn of the new package will not go directly on care, however, and will instead be spent on “digitising” the NHS, as the government attempts to push the health service into an efficiency drive.

The Treasury said the additional spending comes on top of the government’s plan to spend £8bn on tackling the backlog for non-emergency treatments over the next three years.

But the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers groups said last month that the NHS needed an extra £10bn each year for the next three years just to cover the costs of Covid and tackle the significant treatment backlog.

And independent charity the Health Foundation estimated in September that it would cost up to £16.8bn for the next three years to clear the backlog in NHS elective care and return hospital waiting times to 18 weeks.

The NHS announcement comes as Mr Sunak faces pressure from both Labour and backbench Conservative MPs to increase efforts to help families and businesses struggling with rising costs.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told The Andrew Marr Show that the chancellor should be doing more to “ease the cost-of-living price crisis” and help businesses “who have had a torrid 18 months”.

She said the opposition would slash the rate of VAT on gas and electricity bills from 5 per cent to 0 per cent for six months and abolish business rates.

Labour said its own analysis of government figures showed that people in the poorest 10 per cent of households are paying an extra £250 a year more for their energy bills than the richest 10 per cent.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called on Mr Sunak to announce a windfall tax on gas producers to help provide more support for families struggling with their fuel bills.

“Fossil fuel companies are raking it in hand over fist through this gas crisis. The least they can do is pay a little more in tax to help struggling families get through the winter,” Sir Ed told The Independent – estimating a windfall tax could raise up to £10bn.

Tory MPs are keen for the chancellor to slash business rates as part of a major overhaul of the system. But reports suggest only minor changes will be announced at Wednesday’s Budget, despite Mr Sunak’s pledge last year to carry on “fundamental review” of rates.

Rother Valley MP Alexander Stafford – one of the red wall MPs who won seats in traditional Labour-voting territory in 2019 – told The Independent a business rate cut was overdue.

“I want to cut as many taxes as we can, because it creates new businesses, jobs and wealth,” he said. “We also need to show voters that the jobs are coming back … Any party needs to worry about the next election.”

Despite the swathe of pre-Budget announcements, Mr Sunak would not be drawn on whether he could rule out tax rises before the next election. He told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: “You’re asking me to do my Budget live on your show – I’ll do it in parliament on Wednesday.”

The chancellor rejected calls from England football star Marcus Rashford to extend the government’s free school meal programme. He told Andrew Marr the government had moved to “a more normal way of doing things” after putting extra money into school meals during the Covid crisis.

Labour said the £500m Mr Sunak has set aside for new “family hubs” and other measures to support parents with young children could not make up for a decades of cuts. Ms Reeves called the plan a “pale imitation” of Labour’s Sure Start programme.

The chancellor was also forced to admit that his £7bn pre-Budget pledge for new transport projects contained only £1.5bn of new money. Pressed on how much was new, the chancellor conceded £4.2bn had previously been announced. “What we’ve done is top that up,” he told Sky News.

The Treasury insisted that the £5.9bn announced for the NHS was all new spending. The government claimed the additional money will support the aim to deliver around 30 per cent more on checks, scans and procedures for non-emergency patients by 2024-25, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Describing the funding package as “game-changing”, Mr Sunak said: “We are committed to getting health services back on track and ensuring no one is left waiting for vital tests or treatment.”

Health secretary Sajid Javid, said the extra money would support “the delivery of millions more checks, scans and procedures for patients across the country”.

The government hopes the extra investment in IT and data services to create digital patient records will speed up working practices in the NHS. “Business as usual won’t be enough,” said Mr Javid.

Reports suggest the chancellor is preparing to lift the freeze on public sector pay and announce an increase in the minimum wage from the present rate of £8.91 an hour, but he gave little away in his interviews on Sunday.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) director Paul Johnson warned Mr Sunak that “the level of promise is pretty high relative to the level of resource available”.

Mr Johnson told Times Radio: “I think there is a political danger nevertheless that the promises, the big promises on levelling up, the big promises on net zero, big promises on health and so on are going to be pretty hard to fund within what remains a fairly tight envelope.”

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