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PM’s waiting list pledge hinges on resolving NHS strikes, Atkins suggests

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to cut NHS waiting lists (Finbarr Webster/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to cut NHS waiting lists (Finbarr Webster/PA)

Victoria Atkins has suggested that the Prime Minister’s pledge to cut NHS waiting lists relies on the “threat” of further NHS strikes being “removed”.

The Health Secretary, who was appointed to the role just under three weeks ago during a Cabinet reshuffle by Rishi Sunak, has made tackling the disputes with doctors one of her top priorities.

Her approach has produced success, with the Government last week agreeing a deal with consultants in England to potentially end a long and bitter dispute over pay.

She said the Government is “throwing everything we can” at resolving the industrial disputes in the NHS, suggesting that is the best way to deliver on the Prime Minister’s pledge.

Cutting waiting lists was one of five pledges the Conservative Party leader made at the start of the year, along with halving inflation this year, growing the economy, making sure national debt is falling, and passing new laws to stop small boat crossings.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has looked to score political points in recent weeks by pointing out that waiting lists have gone up since the Prime Minister set the goal of reducing them.

At Prime Minister’s Questions last month, Sir Keir said the NHS waiting list stood at 7.8 million — half a million more than in January.

Ms Atkins said putting a stop to industrial action would prevent the NHS from having to reschedule appointments during the walkouts.

The Cabinet minister has struck a conciliatory tone when it comes to dealing with health unions, saying she wants to build a “new relationship” with the British Medical Association (BMA).

She told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: “We have an enormous amount of goodwill at the moment from the BMA and from others, and I’m keen to encourage that.”

Her language has proved markedly different to that of her predecessor Steve Barclay, who referred to the BMA as having a politically “militant stance”.

The deal on the table for consultants, set to be put to union members, will see the country’s top doctors earn more money from January, although it will not be paid until April.

Industrial strike
The junior doctors’ strike is still to be resolved (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The junior doctors’ dispute remains unresolved, however. Their opening gambit was for a 35% pay rise.

Ms Atkins has said the Government cannot meet such requests but is open to fresh talks to resolve the row.

Asked by the BBC about the chances of Mr Sunak hitting his waiting lists pledge ahead of the next election, Ms Atkins replied: “We very much are looking to meet those targets but I need, please, the consultants to pass this settlement that we have put forward.

“I hope very much that doctors in training will be able to reach a settlement with us as well.

“And then, if we have removed the threat of industrial action from the NHS, then those people, who for example, in the October set of actions, we had 40,000 appointments being rescheduled each day, well then that stops and we are able to get on with the business of looking after people.”