Intended for healthcare professionals


NHS waiting times: a government pledge

BMJ 2023; 380 doi: (Published 13 January 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:p71
  1. Catherine Pope, professor of medical sociology
  1. Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  1. Catherine.pope{at}

Now act to tackle the inequality that drives demand

The UK’s prime minister recently pledged to reduce NHS waiting times as one of five “people’s priorities” but failed to set any targets or policy commitments.1 The problem of waiting for NHS care has steadily grown since 1949 despite innumerable initiatives.2 In February 2020, as covid-19 hit the UK, 4.4 million patients in England were waiting for NHS diagnostics, treatment decisions, and procedures. By August 2022 this figure had passed 7.1 million.3 Some commentators have suggested it could reach 13 million.45

The media are quick to suggest a crisis despite nuanced evidence that the effect of waiting on health outcomes depends on what the wait is for.67 The size of the waiting list would not matter if services could provide timely care.

The 1997-2010 Labour government had some success: by 2009, median waits for elective care were below five weeks and over 90% of non-urgent patients waited less than 18 weeks from referral to start of treatment.8 The …

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