LONDON (Reuters) -Britain's health minister on Thursday pledged to cut waiting times for doctors' appointments and launched a fund to support social care, in a plan that drew criticism for not doing enough to solve a staffing crisis in the National Health Service (NHS).
Britain's state-funded NHS, which has provided healthcare free at the point of use since 1948, has seen the COVID-19 pandemic increase demand from patients and create backlogs for elective care while facing its worst ever staffing crisis with thousands of vacancies.
Record numbers have been waiting to start routine treatment, ambulance response times have ballooned while face-to-face appointments with general practitioner (GP) doctors are hard to come by as staffing problems hinder the health service.
"We expect backlogs to rise before they fall as more patients come forward for diagnosis and treatment after the pandemic," Health Secretary Therese Coffey told lawmakers.
In her first major statement in the role, Coffey said that she would make changes to take the burden off GPs, by providing more services through pharmacies and changing staffing rules, with the aim that anyone who needs to see a GP should be able to within two weeks.
Coffey said her A, B, C and D of priorities were ambulances, backlogs, care and doctors and dentists.
She said that improving how quickly patients were discharged could help free up beds in hospitals and reduce ambulance delays, and launched a 500 million pound ($564 million) fund to help get people out of hospital and into adult social care.
She also said that the million volunteers who stepped forward during the pandemic should do so again, but lawmakers were sceptical of the plan.
Conservative Jeremy Hunt, a former health minister, said "it's not more targets the NHS needs, it's more doctors," and the opposition Labour Party also said the staffing crisis needed to be solved.
"There is still no plan that comes close to meeting the scale of the challenge," Labour health spokesman Wes Streeting said.
($1 = 0.8860 pounds)
(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by William Maclean and Jonathan Oatis)