The NHS is now “rationing” its services, a former health minister who served under Boris Johnson has said.
Lord (James) Bethell, who served as minister for technology, innovation and life sciences in the Department of Heath at the height of the COVID pandemic between 2020 and 2021, said the NHS is now “being defined by the amount of resources [it has] available” rather than quality of service.
NHS England figures released last month showed the number of people waiting to start routine hospital treatment has risen to a new record high of 7.4 million.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, which was discussing the state of the NHS ahead of its 75th birthday, Lord Bethell referred to a clip earlier in the show about a man’s long wait for treatment as he said: “The service that the NHS delivers to patients is very high standard, it’s a really great national service. It just doesn’t deliver it to everyone and you had that clip from Kevin who was waiting for kidney treatment for eight, nine, 10 months. That, Laura, is rationing. That is not a logical, clinical decision.
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“If someone has a need for an operation and you simply don’t have the resources to give them what they need, then you are going beyond the important protocols of allocating scarce resources in the best way possible and you are being defined by the amount of resources that you have available.”
After Kuenssberg expressed surprised he openly used the word “rationing” to describe the approach to treatment, the Conservative peer said: “I think that there is a difference between reasonable allocation of resources and making tough decisions which is part of every day life, and having to cope with a system as overwhelmed with illness.”
He added the NHS is being “scapegoated with far too much of society’s problems”, such as gambling addiction, and that it “can’t cope with all the illness there is in society”.
Questioned on his party’s role in the state of the nation’s health, having been in power for 13 years, Lord Bethell said: “This government should be doing more to change the environment in which people live. We need to have an environment where we get rid of the dirty air, junk food, gambling, toxic workplaces, so that overall the population is healthier.”
Speaking on the same programme earlier, the boss of the NHS was unable to say what a four-year-old boy with a potential 70-week wait for treatment should do.
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, was told about a viewer, Stephen from Harrow, whose son is on a waiting list between 50 and 70 weeks long. His only alternative for quicker treatment is to go private and pay £3,000 – money he doesn’t have.
Asked three times by Kuenssberg what her advice to Stephen would be, Pritchard couldn’t answer the question.
It came a week after Rishi Sunak conceded on the same programme “it will take time” for the overall NHS waiting list to come down.
Sunak, who has made reducing waiting times one of his five priorities, told Kuenssberg: “It’s because we’ve had a pandemic, the backlog that ensued was always going to take some time to work through.”
Recent YouGov polling suggested 84% of Britons think the prime minister is doing badly on cutting waiting lists compared with 5% who thought it was going well.
Meanwhile, Pritchard warned strikes by NHS staff cannot become “business as usual”.
"There is no doubt that the sooner that we can bring this to a resolution, the better for patients. Because we’ve already had well over half a million appointments rescheduled as a consequence of industrial action."
It comes after hospital consultants in the British Medical Association overwhelmingly backed strike action in England unless the government makes a “credible offer” on pay.
Strikes are set to take place on 20 and 21 July, just days after junior doctors in England are due to strike for five days over pay.
Health secretary Steve Barclay said "we stand ready to have discussions".