Consultants and nurses are to be paid to work evenings and weekends in a bid to clear the waiting list backlog under Â£250 million plans to perform extra operations this summer.
Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has admitted that waiting times will get worse for some patients as staff concentrate on clearing the backlog of patients who have already been waiting for nearly a year or more.
NHS staff, including consultant surgeons, nurses and support staff, will be paid overtime to work in the evenings and at weekends to provide the treatment.
Growing demand has increased pressure on the ability of the NHS to meet a range of waiting time targets.
The total number of people waiting for treatment topped three million, or five per cent of the population of England, for the first time since March 2008.
On Monday the Department of Health announced that an extra 100,000 treatments will be carried out this summer in an attempt to clear the number of patients with excessively long waiting times.
However, critics have warned that the government is rationing health care and that the NHS is buckling under the pressure of growing demand and a shortage of money.
Dr Mark Porter, chairman of British Medical Association’s governing council, said: “Waiting for an operation is often a very stressful and worrying time for patients. For this, as well as clear medical reasons, nobody should have to wait longer than absolutely necessary for treatment.
â€œIt is right to prioritise patients who have had to wait the longest for treatment, but this announcement tries to wash over the fact that more patients will have to wait longer for an operation because the government, in effect, is having to ration care. This is yet more evidence that the NHS is buckling under extreme pressure and that patient care is being compromised.
â€œFront-line staff are working harder than ever to meet rising demand, but investment is falling far short of what is needed. The NHS is lurching from one missed target to another with the government failing to get to grips with the root of the problem.
â€œDemand on the NHS is rising, staff and services are stretched to breaking point and workloads are becoming unmanageable. Politicians have to face up to reality â€“ we need a long-term solution to the Â£30bn funding gap in the NHS budget.”
The 18-week target time from GP referral to treatment was breached in February and March this year and the target of 62 days for suspected cancer patients was missed for the first time in the last quarter of 2013/14.
Targets for diagnostic tests have not been hit for six months in a row, and accident and emergency departments have been struggling to hit the four hour target, with the major departments missing it for almost a year, according to an analysis by the think tank, the King’s Fund.
In addition, there are more than 500 patients who have been waiting more than a year for pre-planned treatments or operations.
Under the plan to clear the backlog this summer, those waiting longest will be treated first. However, that may mean that more patients wait longer than the 18 week target over the coming months he admitted.
Mr Hunt said: “This focus on long waiters might mean that we undershoot the 18 week target for a temporary period, although we will return to meeting it before the end of the year.
“Indeed, as the many NHS target experts will know, we could ensure we met the 18 week target every month by focusing those 100,000 additional treatments on shorter rather than longer waiters.
“But that would be an indefensible betrayal of those who have been waiting the longest and not one I would be prepared to sanction as Health Secretary.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health confirmed that the Â£250m was coming from within existing health budgets.
Liz Kendall, shadow health minister, said the government have ‘lost control’ of waiting times.
She said: â€œThe number of people waiting more than 18 weeks for their treatment has increased by 50 per cent since 2010, and the cancer waiting time target has been missed for the first time ever.
â€œThe Tories say they don’t want anyone waiting more than a year for their treatment when they should be guaranteeing nobody waits more than 18 weeks. The truth is that the Tories have mismanaged the NHS â€“ and it is patients who are paying the price.â€
A spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons warned that with the focus on treating long-waiters, patients whose case is most urgent should still be prioritised for treatment.
He said: “The intention to reduce the number of people waiting a long time for treatment is laudable, and we welcome the additional resource that has been promised.
“It is essential, however, that clinical priority is paramount when considering which patients should be prioritised.
“With pressures growing on the NHS, we must also continue to consider longer-term solutions to ensure all patients have timely access to necessary treatment for both planned and emergency care.â€
Dr Johnny Marshall, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, which represents most health service organisations, said: “Once it’s been decided that a patient needs an operation or other kind of elective treatment, it is crucial that this takes place without undue delay, as we know this can be distressing for patients.
“All our members will be acutely aware of the impact delays can have on a patient’s peace of mind; staff throughout the NHS â€“ front line and behind the scenes â€“ will already be doing everything they can to deliver timely waits.
“The whole health and care system is under more pressure than ever â€“ A&E attendances are at a record level, and elective procedures rising year on year â€“ so it is not particularly surprising that performance targets like 18 weeks are becoming harder to achieve, as there is finite capacity in the health service.
“We need to change how we use this capacity to sustain the NHS we all value so much, and ensure we invest in the right places at the right time.
“This injection of additional resource is welcome, but even more important than ‘more of the same’ is the commitment from politicians of all parties to face up to the unprecedented challenges now facing the health and care service, and to have an honest debate with the public about what needs to be done to solve these challenges, so the NHS we all value so highly remains fit for purpose.”
Simon Stevens, NHS England Chief Executive, said “The NHS has made huge progress over the past decade in slashing long waits, so the median wait for patients having an operation is now under 10 weeks.
“To lock-in that achievement â€“ and go further in eliminating the longest waits â€“ CCGs are now using earmarked extra funding to commission more elective surgery. As a result they expect their local hospitals to use the summer and early autumn to ensure they can then meet the performance standards which NHS patients are entitled to.”
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