Rishi Sunak is set to warn that the NHS will “break” without a “war footing” plan to tackle the backlog of patients, as he attempts to move away from the debate about tax that has dominated the Tory leadership race.
The former chancellor will insist on Saturday that the public “shouldn’t have to make a choice with a gun to their head”, saying people are turning to private care and using money “they can’t really afford” as a result of NHS delays.
In his first major speech since reaching the final stage of the leadership contest, Mr Sunak will also describe the backlog facing the NHS as the “biggest public service emergency” the country faces.
Figures from May showed that 6.6 million patients were waiting for planned care. Sajid Javid, the former health secretary, warned earlier this year that NHS waiting lists would continue to rise until at least 2024.
Under existing plans, the government and NHS England are aiming to eliminate all waits exceeding a year by March 2025.
Setting out his proposals, Mr Sunak will pledge to eliminate one-year waits six months earlier than planned, by September 2024, and to ensure that overall numbers are falling by 2023. He will also aim to ensure that everyone waiting for more than 18 weeks is contacted by an NHS trust within 100 days.
The former chancellor will also pledge to establish a vaccines-style taskforce on “day one” if he wins the race to succeed Boris Johnson in No 10 against his rival, foreign secretary Liz Truss.
Mr Sunak will say on Saturday that creating a “backlogs taskforce” with independent leadership will cut bureaucracy and waste and “take the best of our experience from Covid”.
But his pledges come just days after experts told The Independent that a £2bn cut to NHS budgets, caused by the government’s unfunded pay deal for staff, will hit cancer backlogs and patient care.
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, asked: “If Rishi Sunak thinks NHS waiting lists are an emergency, why didn’t he do anything about it as chancellor?
“He says he wants to put the NHS onto a ‘war footing’, but the Conservatives have spent years disarming it.”
Danny Mortimer, the deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, welcomed Mr Sunak’s focus on the backlog, but told The Independent that the plan “cannot honestly be described as putting the NHS on a war footing”.
He stressed that the ability to tackle the waiting list is being undermined by a growing shortage of staff, along with “crumbling infrastructure and estates, and the knock-on impact of a crisis in social care”.
Mr Mortimer added: “These risks are heightened by the government’s refusal to fund in full the new pay deal. Despite these challenges, the NHS in England is facing its first real-terms cut in funding this year since 1997, due to unexpected cost pressures and soaring inflation. This reality is not addressed in Mr Sunak’s plan.
“If either of the Tory leadership candidates truly intend to improve the care patients have every right to expect, they must commit to giving the NHS the capital investment it desperately needs.
“Both candidates must commit to a fully funded plan for expanding the number of health and care staff. How can any prime minister claim the NHS is on a war footing without giving it the troops that it needs on the front line?”
Addressing the matter of the backlogs, Mr Sunak will say on Saturday: “Millions of people are waiting for life-saving cancer screening, major surgeries and consultations.
“Already people are using money they can’t really afford to go private. That is privatisation by the back door, and it’s wrong. People shouldn’t have to make a choice with a gun to their head.
“If we do not immediately set in train a radically different approach, the NHS will come under unsustainable pressure and break… and so from day one I will make tackling the NHS backlog my No 1 public service priority.”
Mr Sunak will also say that the NHS App and NHS 111 will be expanded to be the first port of call for patients, allowing them to “input their symptoms and then be directed to who is best placed to help”.
And he will back a plan to expand the number of community diagnostic hubs by repurposing 58,000 vacant high-street shops, with the aim of boosting the number of these hubs to 200 by March 2024.