The Government is not on course to achieve its targets on elective care activity in the next financial year, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned.
The economic researchers also said the number of patients on the NHS elective wait list – which currently stands at 7.2 million – is ‘unlikely to start falling rapidly’.
The BMA said the IFS findings were ‘extremely worrying’, as NHS staff is already working under enormous pressure.
At the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that cutting NHS waiting lists would be one of his five key priorities for 2023.
But the new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), released today, said: ‘The NHS has made meaningful progress in its efforts to reduce the number of patients waiting a very long time for treatment. But progress against its overall treatment volumes target has been far more limited.
‘The ambition is to increase treatment volumes to 30% above pre-pandemic levels by 2024/25. As it stands, our judgement is that this is highly unlikely to be achieved – not least due to the lingering effects of Covid-19 and other pressures on the system.
‘As a result, waiting lists are – in our view – unlikely to start falling rapidly any time soon. Instead, our central expectation is that waiting lists will more or less flatline over the next year, and fall only gradually from mid 2024.’
BMA workforce lead Dr Latifa Patel said: ‘Despite some progress being made to reduce the number of patients waiting over two years, this analysis shows that we still face an extraordinary uphill struggle to bring waiting lists down to a level that is manageable.
‘Doctors and staff are working under enormous pressure to provide care for the millions on waiting lists.
‘It is therefore extremely worrying that the IFS predicts that even more patients will need to be treated simply so that the waiting list levels will remain static.
‘The current level of pressure is not sustainable and it is ridiculous to suggest that the NHS can somehow “increase treatment volumes” without significant investment and a credible workforce plan.
‘Clearly the current system does not have the capacity to tackle the backlog at the rate the Government s claiming as their plans to increase elective care activity have fallen short.’
She added that if the Government truly wanted to increase the number of patients being treated, boosting the NHS workforce must be ‘its immediate priority.’
She said: ‘Elective recovery will never be achieved by simply piling more work on an already overstretched and exhausted workforce.
‘If the Government is serious about addressing this, we need to see the forthcoming long-term workforce strategy backed with funding as well as solutions like addressing pay restoration and punitive pension taxation so we can retain and boost our workforce.’
In a speech to the nation earlier this year, Mr Sunak said he knows ‘there are challenges in A&E’, with people ‘understandably anxious when they see ambulances queuing outside hospitals’ but did not go into detail on how he would achieve the target.
Last week the Government unveiled its emergency care plan and said that urgent care provided in the community will be expanded to ensure ‘people can get the care they need at home,’ without the need for a hospital admission.
The measures will be ‘aligned with priorities for primary care,’ including the forthcoming GP access recovery plan and the implementation of the Fuller stocktake report, the Government said.