The number of operations cancelled by the NHS in England because of staff shortages may have doubled in three years, with an estimated 30,000 not proceeding because no staff were available to perform them.
At least a third of cancelled operations were those that were deemed urgent, according to the analysis by Labour. It suggested at least 2,500 cancelled operations for cancer patients and 8,000 on children.
The data was collated by Labour from freedom of information requests to back up the party’s pledge to invest heavily in addressing staff shortages.The figures were calculated by using data collected from 39% of trusts who responded to the FOIs, who reported more than 11,000 cancellations due to staffing.
It found staff shortages were the most common reason given for cancellations by hospitals, accounting for one in five of all operations cancelled for non-clinical reasons last year.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was “misleading” to extrapolate that figure from the data in the FOIs. “Thousands of elective appointments and procedures had to be cancelled during the pandemic to protect the NHS, and since then we’ve been focused on delivering the biggest catch-up programme in health history – virtually eliminating the longest 2-year waits for treatment,” a spokesman said.
Labour has said it will address shortages over the long term by doubling the number of medical school places to train 15,000 doctors and 10,000 new nurses and midwives each year, as well as 5,000 new health visitors.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said the long waits for crucial operations were directly a result of the Conservatives failing to train enough staff. “Having operations cancelled causes huge disruption to patients, and prevents them from being able to get on with their lives,” he said.
“Labour will tackle this problem at its root. We will train a new generation of doctors and nurses so patients get the treatment they need, when they need it. We will abolish non-doms to pay for it because patients need treatment more than the wealthiest need a tax break and if you live and work in Britain you should pay your taxes here.”
In total, 158,000 operations were cancelled for issues including equipment failures, a shortage of beds, and 5,700 because of equipment failure, administrative errors, and theatre lists overrunning. Labour cited one case that involved a 72-year-old woman who had two operations to remove a brain tumour cancelled in September, blamed on a lack of available beds.
About 9,500 operations were cancelled because an emergency case took priority, and 250 due to adverse weather.
Separate figures from the NHS show record numbers of operations cancelled at the last minute are not rearranged to take place within a month, with one in five patients waiting longer.
The data came from response from 50 out of 122 acute trusts who responded to the FoI requests. In 2018-19, 10,900 operations were cancelled because of staff shortages. The number of cancelled operations due to faulty equipment has increased from 4,800 to 5,700.
Over the weekend, Streeting drew fire from the British Medical Association after an interview in which he criticised the doctors’ union, after he said GPs needed to also improve patient care alongside funding for new doctor training.
The shadow health secretary said he could not understand why the BMA was “so hostile to the idea that with more staff must come better standards for patients”.
A vote last month by GPs in England to cut surgeries’ core opening hours to 9am to 5pm made doctors “look like they’re living on a different planet and, worst of all, aren’t really thinking about the best interests of patients,” Streeting said.
Nevertheless, Dr Emma Runswick, the deputy chair of council at the BMA, said the comments were “incredibly disappointing” and that anger should be “directed squarely at the government”.
But Streeting’s comments were backed by Keir Starmer, who said he had spoken to Streeting and agreed with what he had said. The Labour leader said: “I do agree … we’ve got to think about working differently and simply saying surgery only between 9 and 5 simply doesn’t fit with that pattern,” he told LBC.
“What I want to see from everybody as we go in to reform, if we do as a Labour government, is a sort of can-do attitude.”