The government has delayed a plan to tackle a record backlog of hospital treatment across England, health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed on Monday.
Responding to reports that chancellor Rishi Sunak had blocked the unveiling of an NHS recovery plan, first expected in December and then scheduled for Monday, Javid said the blueprint had been “delayed by Omicron” and the need to focus on the booster programme.
“[There is] no issue around the money at all — it’s all about just making sure when you publish something so ambitious and so important . . . that across government, everything’s agreed and everyone is behind the plan,” he told the BBC.
He described the Treasury as “an excellent partner” with whom he had “a great relationship”, and insisted the plan would be published “soon”.
The Financial Times reported in November that NHS leaders were reluctant to agree to detailed waiting time targets, due to uncertainty about how many patients would come forward as the pandemic faded. Javid said on Monday: “We will have some kinds of targets in the new elective recovery plan. I couldn’t tell you exactly what they are today.”
The delay in the plan was blamed by Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, on Sunak refusing to release cash for a project that might help to stabilise the position of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson is under significant pressure to reset his administration after five senior aides resigned last week, and more than a dozen Tory backbenchers called for him to resign over social gatherings in Downing Street during Covid-19 restrictions.
Taylor, who worked in Downing Street with former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, said on Sunday that Sunak was behaving like Gordon Brown, former Labour chancellor, who withheld money for Blair’s favoured projects as he agitated to become PM.
“Increasingly getting the sense that Johnson now faces the same (but more intense and short-term) challenge TB had in his third term,” Taylor wrote on Twitter.
Taylor claimed that the Treasury was “loath to agree to any No 10 plans involving money as the chancellor sees these as opportunistic and wasted on a dying administration”.
One person familiar with discussions from the NHS side suggested there were no major disagreements between health leaders and the government over the detail of the plan, and the document was largely unchanged from the version due to have been published at the start of December, before Omicron hit.
“Most of the big things . . . that you would expect to go into a recovery plan were agreed, like, ‘what’s the overall ambition for the long waiters?’”, they said, referring to the goal of reducing the number waiting up to two years for treatment.
Aspects that had yet to be agreed were “one level down in terms of importance and detail, and certainly nothing that would hold up the plan”, the insider added.
Allies of Sunak denied the delay was “anything to do” with questions about the Tory leadership and said the hold-up was because the NHS was not ready to release a “half-baked” plan.
However, the chancellor is determined that the £12bn raised from a controversial national insurance rise, taking effect in April, actually delivers results for patients and that the NHS has a fully-formed plan to cut waiting lists.
Sunak has taken heavy criticism from Tory MPs for pushing ahead with the NIC increase. Javid promised the Treasury when he secured the money for the NHS and social care that it would be accompanied by reform.
Johnson was hoping the NHS plan would be announced this week as he battles to stave off a threat to his leadership.
Downing Street is anxiously gauging the mood of Tory MPs; If 54 submit letters it would trigger a confidence vote. Johnson’s aides believe the current total falls well below that number.