The House

NHS recovery must not leave heart patients behind


The coronaviru­s pandemic has posed a huge challenge to health systems across the globe. As the government seeks to invoke a ‘catch-up’ programme for patients left behind in the pandemic, the British Heart Foundation is working to ensure heart patients are made a priority.

For the 7.6 million people living with heart and circulator­y diseases across the UK, this is a make-or-break year. Over a quarter of a million heart disease patients are on NHS waiting lists in England, and this number is growing month-on-month. Behind every number is a person anxiously waiting to hear how and when they will be treated.

Widespread staffing issues, pent-up demand, and the Omicron variant present further formidable challenges for exhausted NHS staff. But there is hope. With the actions outlined below, we can ensure the pandemic’s seismic disruption to patient care doesn’t reverse six decades of progress against heart disease.

Prioritise heart disease in elective recovery

The elective recovery plan must be published urgently, clarifying how health workers will be supported to deliver the Government’s target of 30% more elective activity compared to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this Spending review period.

It’s vital the plan supports heart patients, especially those waiting for a diagnosis.

Waiting lists for a heart ultrasound known as an echocardio­gram have reached record levels, with almost 150,000 people in England in the queue. Long delays increase someone’s risk of becoming more unwell or even dying while waiting to hear if they need treatment.

Heart patients must hear how new community diagnostic centres will tackle the echo backlog, helping them get the crucial care they need sooner. They also need clear communicat­ion that the NHS is open for them so that ‘hidden’ heart patients who have not yet come forward for care do not become sicker while waiting for pandemic pressures to ease.

Act on workforce

None of this is achievable without a stronger NHS workforce. Like many specialtie­s, there are significan­t shortages in the cardiac workforce and these gaps undermine the NHS Long Term Plan and national recovery ambitions.

That’s why the British Heart Foundation, together with a coalition of over 90 organisati­ons, is supporting the cross-party amendment to Clause 35 of the Health and Care Bill requiring independen­t assessment­s of workforce planning be regularly published. This amendment is not a panacea for workforce challenges, but it is a necessary preconditi­on for overcoming them. We urge Peers reading this to support the amendment as it progresses through the Lords.

We welcome the Government’s pledge to deliver ‘the biggest catch-up programme in the NHS’s history.’ By prioritisi­ng cardiac backlogs and taking bold action on workforce, the Government can ensure heart patients aren’t left behind.

“Over a quarter of a million heart disease patients are on NHS waiting lists in England, and this number is growing monthon-month

people coming into A&E,” he adds.

Next on the agenda, Hunt proposes, should be a return to a traditiona­l model of the GP-patient relationsh­ip. He says the current set up, where a doctor rarely knows the people they treat, is a “huge step backwards,” and warrants review.

“We need to look at what it is that makes medicine rewarding for the wonderful people who decide to go into it. And at the heart of it is their relationsh­ip with their own patients.”

Westminste­r and the news agenda has been dominated in recent weeks by discussion of “partygate”. On the day we speak, more revelation­s about gatherings at Downing Street and beyond appear to be breaking by the hour, and the Prime Minister’s position is looking increasing­ly shaky. Does Hunt think this is distractin­g the government from the challenges facing the NHS?

“I think the issues around ‘partygate’ are substantiv­e issues,” he responds carefully. “They are important issues and we’re now waiting for the results of the independen­t inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened.

“But I think that come the next general election, progress on the

NHS is going to be the most important thing in people’s minds.

“Even outside pandemics, the NHS was [invariably] the most important or one of the top three issues in people’s minds. And for all of us, health is the single most important thing. It’s the foundation of everything else.

“It’s really important that we focus on the long-term changes that we need, if we want the NHS to offer the safest, highest quality care in the world.”

With Johnson’s reputation and authority as Prime Minister taking a beating in recent weeks, thoughts have begun to turn to who could succeed him. Foreign Secretary Liz

Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are among the bookies’ favourites. Other names in circulatio­n include Michael Gove, Priti Patel – and Hunt himself.

The then-foreign secretary went head-to-head against Johnson in the final round of the 2019 leadership race triggered by the resignatio­n of then-PM Theresa May. He was backed by a third of Conservati­ve members in the final round of voting – a respectabl­e showing but far short of victory.

If Johnson was to stand down in the next few months, or even weeks, would Hunt run again?

“I wasn’t expecting to leave the government in 2019, but I’ve enjoyed being on the backbenche­s much more than I thought,” he muses.

“I won’t say my ambition has completely vanished, but it would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring.”

For now, he hopes the government can “weather this storm and there isn’t a leadership election”. He offers praise for his beleaguere­d leader, adding,

“we have to give Boris great credit” for his successes with the vaccine programme and securing a Brexit deal.

Perhaps some of his hesitation comes from the fact that, as a veteran of the Cabinet himself, he knows the challenges a prime minister is up against.

“I’ve seen that job up close and personal. It is a very, very challengin­g and difficult job.

“And so, while I can understand why people want it, I think that most people who’ve experience­d closely the reality of just how tough it is to be our prime minister would pause before rushing to try and grab the mantle.”



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