In this report, the Public Accounts Committee, which examines the value for money of UK Government projects, programmes and service delivery, looks in detail at the implementation of NHS England’s three-year recovery programme for tackling the Covid-19 backlog of elective care.
In February 2022, NHS England published a plan to recover elective and cancer care over three years from April 2022 to March 2022. Analysing the implementation of this plan to date, the Public Accounts Committee’s has come to the following conclusions and recommendations:
Cancer waiting times are at their worst recorded level and NHS England (NHSE) will not meet its first cancer recovery target.
- NHS England should be able to treat 85% of people with cancer within 62 days of an urgent GP referral and no one should ever have to wait more than 104 days for cancer treatment. It is unacceptable that 8,100 people waited over 104 days in the first five months of 2022–23. As a matter of urgency, the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England should do whatever is required to bring cancer treatment back to an acceptable standard.
NHS England was over-optimistic about the circumstances in which the NHS would be trying to recover elective and cancer care.
- NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care should revisit their planning assumptions for the recovery and publicly report any updates to targets so that patients and NHS staff can see a clear and realistic trajectory to achieve the 62-day cancer backlog target, the 52-week wait target for elective care, and, ultimately, the 18-week legal standard for elective care.
NHS funding has increased, but to deliver key priorities such as elective and cancer recovery it will need to be spent in the most cost-effective way.
- NHSE should transparently describe how the additional funds for elective recovery have been allocated. Alongside the Treasury Minute response, it should also write to us providing details of the programmes on which it expects the £14 billion to be spent, the independent evaluations it has put in place to monitor the effectiveness of additional spending, and how it expects additional spending to improve NHS productivity.
NHS England’s elective recovery programme partly relies on initiatives which have potential but for which there is so far limited evidence of effectiveness.
- NHS England should know more about the conditions necessary for individual programmes to make the greatest contribution possible to recovery. Alongside its Treasury Minute response to this report, it should write to us more fully describing the real-world impact of community diagnostic centres, surgical hubs, increased use of the independent sector, and the advice and guidance programme. It should set out its understanding of the extent to which these initiatives have so far generated genuinely additional activity, rather than simply displacing activity elsewhere in the NHS.
NHSE started 2022–23 with a strategy but spent most of the year dealing with tactical issues and its strategic and programme management of the recovery must improve.
- NHS England must lift its sights and refocus on its strategic duty to offer direction to the whole NHS. This should involve making difficult trade-offs to address historical inequalities between areas, and by having a clear set of actions to improve leadership. To demonstrate progress, NHS England should write to us by the Summer recess setting out the action is has taken to address variation in elective and cancer performance and provide evidence of the impact this has had on patient waiting lists.
The NHS’s recovery cannot succeed without comprehensive, realistic and sustainable plans for the future of the workforce and the capacity of adult social care.
- The Department of Health and Social Care should work with NHS England to reassess the achievability of elective and cancer recovery targets following the publication of its workforce plan in 2023, and planned improvements to the discharge of patients into adult social care. It should write to us as soon as possible describing the conclusions of this achievability assessment.
- The Department should publish the underlying assumptions of its workforce projections alongside the forecasts in the workforce plan. This should include quantification of key assumptions, particularly on productivity, domestic training and overseas recruitment and, in full, the independent reviewer’s assessment.
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