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16 December 2021

How the booster roll-out will affect your NHS treatment

Pandemic disruption has already led to a record waiting list of six million patients in need of treatment, A&E care and surgery.

By Anoosh Chakelian, Sarah Dawood and Rebecca Cunningham

Operation Get Boosted is officially underway. The NHS has been instructed to try and meet Boris Johnson’s target of a million jabs a day, and give every adult the chance to have their third vaccination by the end of the year.

This means that doctors, nurses and other frontline health workers will have to put aside other routine services to dedicate resources to the roll-out.

“As we focus on boosters and make this new target achievable, it will mean some other appointments will need to be postponed until the New Year,” the Prime Minister warned in his televised address on Sunday 12 December.

“But if we don’t do this now, the wave of Omicron could be so big that cancellations and disruptions, like the loss of cancer appointments, would be even greater next year.”

In the House of Commons the next day, on Monday 13 December, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid spoke of “difficult trade-offs”.

“We are redeploying NHS staff away from non-urgent services. This means that, for the next two weeks, all primary care services will focus on urgent clinical needs and vaccines,” he admitted. “And some urgent appointments and elective surgeries may be postponed until the new year while we prioritise people getting the booster.”

This news comes as NHS England faces a record waiting list of six million patients – a backlog that will only grow as the booster programme takes precedence.

Adapted and updated from an October 2021 infographic for the New Statesman's Spotlight supplement by Rebecca Cunningham.

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Even before the pandemic, targets were being missed. Pre-pandemic, more than 80 per cent of patients started treatment within 18 weeks of referral, when the NHS target is 92 per cent.

A few months after the first nationwide lockdown, in July 2020, just 46.8 per cent of patients started treatment within 18 weeks of referral.

In March, the median waiting time from referral to treatment was 11.6 weeks – compared with 8.9 weeks in March 2020 and 6.9 weeks in March 2019.

Between April 2020 and July 2021, there were 3.8 million fewer elective (non-emergency) procedures carried out than usual, as estimated by the British Medical Association.

Millions fewer elective procedures have gone ahead since the pandemic hit:

Thousands of cancer diagnoses are being missed during the pandemic:

While the booster drive is being ramped up to protect the NHS from a potential surge in hospitalisations from the new Omicron variant, there are immediate consequences for non-Covid treatment and care.

Seven in 10 Britons lack confidence they can get an appointment with a GP at a time when they want one, according to new polling from Ipsos MORI.

Nearly nine in 10 say NHS waiting times for non-emergency treatment and care are too long and more than three quarters for emergency treatment waiting times.

This is leading to an anecdotal rise in patients choosing to go private and pay for their healthcare themselves.

According to the polling, voters see a lack of resources and investment in the health service as the biggest problem for the NHS. While the government will put taxes up next April for funding to clear the backlog, it is becoming increasingly unlikely – what with the current postponement of routine appointments and care – that it will be enough.

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