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Why are the Tory leadership candidates not talking about NHS waiting lists?

As Conservative hopefuls bicker over culture wars, the National Health Service is falling apart at the seams.

By Zoë Grünewald

While the Conservative leadership contenders bicker over whether human rights are a good thing and whether we can still say the word “mother”, one has to sit back and wonder: can they not see the more immediate problems facing this country? We are approaching the hottest week on record here in the UK, with some predictions suggesting we may see temperatures climb to 43ºC. On Friday, it was reported that energy bills could reach more than £3,300 a year by January 2023 – with no end to the energy or cost-of-living crises in sight.

Of course, some of these issues are part of broader problems that require international cooperation, but there are other pressing crises emerging that start, and finish, at home. At present, there are around seven million people across the UK on NHS waiting lists. A&E waiting time are the highest they’ve been since records began – with over 25 per cent of people waiting four hours or more to be seen. And Bowel Cancer UK has reported that, alone, the cancer care backlog currently affects more than two million people across the country.

At the end of June, the NHS announced it would offer patients who have been waiting more than two years for surgery the chance to travel to receive treatment, in an attempt to speed up access pathways. But, for some, this is simply not enough. The former leader of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, warned last month that little could be done to address the “once-in-a-generation backlog of unimaginable proportions” without addressing the lack of staff, burnout and a shortage of beds. He pointed out that there were already 100,000 vacancies in the NHS in England, and doctors were “utterly exhausted” as their well-being was at “rock bottom”.

Back in April, the House of Commons health and social care committee warned that delayed treatment and diagnosis in cancer services will “almost certainly” lead to many preventable deaths. Spotlight reported that “without sufficient action, more than 340,000 people between 2019 and 2028 may miss out on an early cancer diagnosis, which the committee deemed “the single most effective way to improve overall survival rates”.

The backlog is in part due to staff shortages, but also a lack of beds, facilities and equipment. According to Siva Anandaciva from the King’s Fund think tank, since the 2008 financial crash, the NHS has fallen into a “vicious cycle”, where various “hard-fought gains” – such as meeting the four-hour A&E waiting time and the 18-week standard of referral for treatment targets – have eroded.

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Our political leaders’ refusal to engage with these crises will result in millions of people being plunged into poverty and many unable to access the care so desperately needed. A navel-gazing focus on waging culture wars, bragging about supposed tax cuts and pledging to scrap net zero is not just petty leadership politics – it will have real, catastrophic consequences for the coherent policymaking this country so desperately needs.

The Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, dubbed the contest an “arms race of fantasy economics”, and he is not wrong – the Tory contenders care more about appealing to the right wing of the party, and the backbenchers, than they do about the UK.

Boris Johnson’s resignation was an opportunity for those in the governing party to refocus their minds in a time of crisis. Instead, the leadership contest has become a self-indulgent battle that illustrates just how out of touch much of the party has become.

[ See also: The NHS is under strain from Covid once again ]

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