Rishi Sunak: Hold me to account if NHS waiting lists don’t fall

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Desk report: Rishi Sunak has asked people to hold him to account if NHS waiting lists in England do not fall in two years.

It is one of five pledges set out in the prime minister’s first major speech of 2023, with others including the economy and small boat crossings.

Mr Sunak is facing challenges this winter, including a wave of strike action, a cost-of-living crisis and huge pressure on the health services.

But the PM said he was “taking urgent action” and increasing NHS funding.

He said the government was also increasing bed capacity and the extra money would help ensure people who are ready to be discharged can be moved into social care or looked after in the community.

With the Conservatives trailing in the polls after last year’s political turmoil, Mr Sunak used his speech to set out the priorities for his premiership.

He also sought to reassure the public that he could deliver, ahead of a general election widely expected in 2024.

His speech set out five key pledges:

  • Halve inflation this year to ease the cost of living
  • Grow the economy, creating better-paid jobs and opportunity across the country
  • Ensure national debt is falling
  • NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly
  • Pass new laws to stop small boat crossings, making sure those who arrive illegally are detained and swiftly removed

He said people would be able to judge his government on whether it had delivered on these priorities, “no tricks… no ambiguity”.

He provided little detail on how some of the pledges would be achieved and admitted “many factors are out of my control”.

But Downing Street later said that halving inflation this year will be judged from the final quarter of 2022 to the final quarter of 2023.

And Mr Sunak’s pledge to “grow the economy” will be met if GDP is higher in the fourth quarter of 2023 than in the third quarter.

The speech came after senior doctors warned the NHS was on a knife edge, with some accident and emergency units in a “complete state of crisis”.

A sharp rise in Covid and flu admissions in recent weeks has put pressure on hospitals, which are also dealing with a backlog of treatment that built up during the pandemic.

This has contributed to long waits for ambulances, emergency treatment and non-urgent care.

A shortage of capacity and staff in social care also means there is often a delay in people leaving hospital when they are ready to be discharged, meaning fewer beds are available for other patients.

Asked by the BBC’s Chris Mason how soon things would improve in the NHS this winter, Mr Sunak said cutting waiting times was one of his priorities, adding: “I want the country to hold me to account for delivering it.”

He said the government was increasing funding and bringing in innovations like virtual wards, so people could be treated at home where appropriate.

“I believe in just a few months we will have practically eliminated waiting times for those waiting a year and a half”, he said.

“We’ve already eliminated those waiting two years, and by next spring I think we will have eliminated those waiting a year.”

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