'It's simply fact': Deputy PM defends Rishi Sunak after he tells LBC strikes are to blame for NHS waiting lists

3 August 2023, 09:55 | Updated: 3 August 2023, 10:01

Rishi Sunak speaks to LBC's Nick Ferrari
Rishi Sunak speaks to LBC's Nick Ferrari. Picture: Alamy/LBC

By Emma Soteriou

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden has backed Rishi Sunak after he was criticised for telling LBC strikes are to blame for NHS waiting lists rocketing up.

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The prime minister told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast on Wednesday that junior doctor and consultant strikes were to blame for the waiting list - now standing at about 7.9m - going up.

But he has since faced a backlash from the British Medical Association (BMA), with one doctor branding him a liar.

Deputy PM Oliver Dowden has since come out in support of Mr Sunak, telling LBC that his comments were "simply a fact".

"We’re not picking a fight with junior doctors and we’ve made a very reasonable pay offer but it is simply a fact that if doctors are not treating people because they’re on strike then that is going to add to waiting lists," he said.

He added: "I see the action that hospitals are taking in response to industrial action by doctors and one of the things they have to do sadly is cancel operations – so-called elective surgery – that adds to waiting lists.

"It is just a fact of industrial action and I think the Prime Minister is right to highlight that."

Read more: Rishi Sunak branded a 'liar' by A&E doctor after PM tells LBC strikes are to blame for NHS waiting list rocketing up

The Deputy Prime Minister notes waiting lists will 'grow' if junior doctors continue to strike

It comes after Dr Kiara Vincent, a 36-year-old ­accident and emergency medic in the East Midlands, told the Mirror: "It's lies, isn't it. Well before strikes and Covid, this has been a problem for a long time.

"I find it really difficult to go to work a lot of the time because I know I'm not going to be able to do the job I've been trained for.

"It's really hard knowing you're going to do a rubbish job through no fault of your own. The strikes are there because we want ­something better for our patients. We can't carry on like this.

BMA responds to Sunak's comment on strikes increasing patient waiting

"The work's hard, everyone is burnt out, the pay is not good enough, loads of my colleagues have left to work in Australia or New Zealand or even quit being doctors. The impact of strikes is nothing compared to the impact from the lack of staff and sickness and burnout."

Sara Gorton, Unison's head of health, said: "The Prime Minister is trying to distract attention from the ­Government's disastrous record on the NHS. It's dishonest to blame health staff for spiralling waiting lists.

"There wouldn't have been a day of action had the Government dealt with NHS pay properly last year."

Olivia, a junior doctor from Newcastle, told Mr Sunak on LBC that his "refusal to negotiate" has done nothing to improve staff morale of standards of care within the NHS.

But Mr Sunak hit back, telling Olivia he is "proud" of his government's record, having invested record sums since he became prime minister.

"Not only that, but just last week we announced the first ever long-term workforce plan for the NHS so we can deliver something that has been asked for for decades and for the first time as PM I’ve delivered it," he said.

Mr Sunak added that he would urge Olivia's junior doctors union to accept the independent pay offer of six per cent which other healthcare workers have accepted, including nurses.

Read more: 'You're the Prime Minister. Your staff aren’t happy': Sunak defends NHS record in testy exchange with junior doctor

"We were actually making progress…we eliminated the number of two year waiters, people waiting a really long time, we practically eliminated the number of people waiting one-and-a-half years," he told LBC.

“We were making progress on bringing the overall numbers down. What happened? We had industrial action."

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In a testy exchange, Olivia said: "I think it’s amazing that we’re blaming the increasing of waiting list on doctors going on strike.

"You’re losing staff because we’re undervalued and it’s not just doctors. It’s everyone, we’re all leaving. A happy workforce is your responsibility. You’re the prime minister. You’re the government. Your staff aren’t happy.

"That’s your fault and ultimately that’s not good for patients because retaining staff is one of the bedrocks of making sure you have good patient safety."

Sunak comments on waiting lists.

Mr Sunak then asked Olivia to look at the long-term workforce plan. She hit back: "I’ve looked at it, I’ve read it! I get it. It’s great... but there’s going to be no one left."

But the prime minister refused to budge, telling Olivia that he will not agree to an “unreasonable” and “unaffordable” 35 per cent pay rise.

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Reacting to Mr Sunak's appearance on LBC, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: "The Tories have run down the NHS over more than a decade and left record numbers on waiting lists.

"Now Sunak has the audacity to blame doctors and nurses for rising waiting lists. They’re a convenient scapegoat for his failures.

"He hasn’t lifted a finger to end the NHS strikes."

It comes after Mr Sunak accepted the recommendations from all pay review bodies, meaning teachers, junior doctors, and police officers are set to receive a pay rise, with junior doctors being offered six percent.

The BMA has already rejected a five per cent pay offer from the government.