Steve Barclay calls talks with Scotland and Wales on cutting NHS waiting listson August 13, 2023 at 3:23 am

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The health secretary says Scottish and Welsh patients could be treated in England to cut waiting times.

Hospital staff performing surgeryImage source, Getty Images

The health secretary has invited the Welsh and Scottish governments to discuss how best to tackle NHS waiting lists, as millions wait for hospital treatment across the UK.

Steve Barclay accused them of having worse delays than England in some cases – but they disputed the figures.

Hospital waiting lists in England hit a record 7.57 million people in June.

He also told the devolved governments he was open to Scottish and Welsh patients being treated in England.

NHS services are devolved, meaning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland control them in those nations, while the UK government runs them in England.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made cutting waiting lists one of his “five priorities”, and he’s said people should hold him to account if NHS waiting lists in England do not fall by January 2025.

So far the numbers are not moving in the right direction.

Knowing this could bite when it comes to an election campaign, UK government ministers are keen to argue things wouldn’t be better under Labour or the SNP.

The government said under Labour in Wales more than 73,000 people have been waiting at least 77 weeks for treatment, and under the SNP in Scotland more than 21,600 people have been waiting over 78 weeks for outpatient, day-case or inpatient appointments.

But both Scottish and Welsh governments have hit back, saying it isn’t comparing like-for-like figures.

Scottish health minister Michael Matheson said: “Rather than attempting to involve themselves in devolved areas, the UK government would be well-served focusing on tackling the many issues in the health service south of the border.”

He added after the Scottish government negotiated with junior doctors, his nation is the only part of the UK to avoid NHS strike action this year.

And a Welsh government spokesperson said: “Long waiting times are falling every month in Wales and have more than halved in the past year.

“The overall growth in waiting lists… has been smaller in Wales than in England over the last 12 months.”

In England, the waiting list for hospital treatments in England in June was more than three million higher than it was before the pandemic, hitting 7.57 million people.

Of those on a waiting list, more 383,000 people have been waiting longer than a year.

Graph showing growing waiting lists

Official counterparts in Northern Ireland have also been invited to the meeting in the absence of a functioning government.

Mr Barclay has asked UK health ministers to discuss how health data can be made more comparable, and what “lessons can be learnt” from different approaches taken in each nation.

While there may be merits in discussing shared challenges and solutions, health has been used as a political attack line ever since the pandemic.

As it’s run by different parties in each part of the UK, seemingly well-meaning letters and meetings between the governments have often been used to take a veiled pop at each others’ approach.

For years, UK government insiders have mulled the idea of creating more centrally held, comparable data on NHS performance across the UK. If this happened, it may be easier to see which of these attacks – or not – are really justified.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “What’s next, the Conservatives offering advice on bringing mortgage costs down?

“The only advice the Tories are qualified to offer is how to wreck the NHS and cause the biggest strikes in its history.”

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