RCPCH urges government to seize unique workforce plan opportunity

Paediatricians are calling for action ahead of the budget on Wednesday 15 March, and following data from the NHS staff survey, as well as NHS England’s publication of the referral to treatment waiting times data for January 2023.

The referral to treat data shows:

  • The number of children and young people in the queue for paediatric care and treatment has soared to more than 387,000. 
  • The data shows there are 71,400 more children waiting to be seen by a paediatric consultant in January 2023 than there was a year prior.   
  • 2,169 children in England have been waiting more than 78 weeks for treatment.
  • Nearly 17,000 (16,907) children have been waiting for more than 52 weeks.
  • Fewer than 60% of children are seeing a consultant within the 18-week target (58.3%). The NHS target is that this should be 92%, and the NHS has committed to a zero-tolerance target for waits longer than 52 weeks yet clearly thousands of children are waiting longer. 
  • The RTT data only reveals waiting times from referral to first contact, so the true figures are likely to be significantly higher, with particularly long waits (often 1-2 years) for specialist input particularly autism and ADHD assessment or SLT provision. This specialist input is often requested after an initial contact and therefore is ‘hidden’ from these figures. 

NHS staff survey data shows: 

  • 32.3% said they often think about leaving this organisation
  • 34% they feel burnt out because of their work

In response to rising waiting times, RCPCH VP for Policy Dr Mike McKean said:

Latest data shows that thousands of children and young people are now waiting a year or more for routine treatment. This is appalling and unacceptable. 

We appreciate that the NHS is working hard to reduce waiting times for patients, but the fact remains that waiting times for children have risen, including for those waiting over a year. Long waiting times for treatment is unacceptable for any patient but is particularly dangerous for children. For children and young people, many treatments need to be given by a specific age or developmental stage. It is not the same as for adults. If you miss the right window to treat a child or wait too long the consequences can be irrevocable and can lead to lifelong impacts and developmental issues.

We know that winter is always a busy period for any paediatric ward, but we now find ourselves in an extended winter in which pressure on services remain high and staff morale is low. NHS England figures published earlier this week show that only a quarter of NHS staff (26.4%) say there are enough staff to do their jobs properly and a third of staff feel “burnt out because of their work”. Sadly only 57% of staff would recommend their organisation as a place to work. This has to change. 

Action in the form of a detailed, fully funded workforce plan is needed.  This should be evidence based, and with a strong focus on wellbeing and morale to ensure staff want to stay working for the NHS. Furthermore, ahead of the Spring budget we strongly urge the Chancellor to reform current pension rules for UK doctors, which currently discourages some senior doctors from staying in the NHS and retiring early. 

The upcoming workforce plan is a unique opportunity to tackle this ongoing crisis and make some concrete progress in NHS recovery. The government must provide the funding the NHS needs to turn the upcoming plan into a genuine opportunity to recruit and retain more staff. This would be investment in not just the longevity of the NHS, but also in the health of our nation.