Boris and Rishi's uneasy show of unity after Treasury 'blocked PM's plan for NHS backlog'

7 February 2022, 13:36 | Updated: 7 February 2022, 16:04

Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak during a visit to the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital today
Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak during a visit to the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital today. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

The Prime Minister and Chancellor put on an uneasy show of unity today on an outing at a hospital, announcing plans to deal with the backlog of cancer treatment which built up during the pandemic.

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The outing came hours after a last minute intervention in Whitehall saw plans to tackle the backlog of patients on hospital waiting lists in England delayed.

The Treasury is reported to have stepped in, causing the delay. But Health Secretary Sajid Javid denied reports that the plans had been put on hold amid claims of a split at the top of Government.

Mr Javid also refused three times to rule out a leadership bid if there is a contest in a morning interview today.

The outing comes after Boris Johnson sang a rendition of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" to his new director of communications Guto Harri, after his top team was rocked by a series of senior departures.

Mr Harri Mr Harri told a Welsh magazine that after exchanging lines from the 1970s disco hit, and "a lot of laughing", he and Mr Johnson "sat down to have a serious discussion about how to get the government back on track.

Read more: Boris 'belts out I will Survive' to new staff after shake-up at No10

Read more: Boris's multi-billion plan bid to clear NHS backlog not blocked by Sunak, Javid insists

Read more: Sajid Javid says Carrie Johnson should be 'off limits' as he blasts 'unfair' reports

Sajid Javid denies reports Treasury has blocked NHS Recovery Plan

Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak's public outing today at the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital comes as the Metropolitan Police investigation into parties in No 10 and Whitehall is still ongoing, and the full report by Sue Gray is not yet published.

In a further sign of pressure the PM is facing, special adviser Henry Newman, seen as close to the Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie, left his role.

He is returning to work for his former boss Michael Gove and has left in a “mutually agreed decision with the Prime Minister”.

The Telegraph said the Treasury had blocked the NHS recovery scheme's announcement, refusing to sign off on it over concerns about value for money after treatment targets slipped during the wave of the Omicron Covid variant.

Mr Johnson said there would be "tough targets" set for tackling the backlog and that the "vast majority" of patients who suspect they have cancer should get a diagnosis within 28 days.

Boris Johnson out running in Westminster this morning
Boris Johnson out running in Westminster this morning. Picture: Alamy

Speaking on LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, earlier Mr Javid said: "We've got an excellent relationship with the Treasury, I have to tell you.

"Just from my own experience of having been Chancellor, a good solid working relationship with the Treasury for any department is really crucial to good delivery.

"And in terms of support that my department has received from the Treasury in terms of health and social care, it has been rock solid. Look at the investment we're making, how we're doing it, so I've got good partners there, I've got good partners across Government."

The wide-ranging plan by NHS England to get down the record six million patients waiting for non-urgent operations and procedures had reportedly been expected on Monday.

The Daily Telegraph reported the Treasury had refused to sign off on the measures, despite detailed discussions with No 10, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the NHS.

The paper quoted sources as citing concerns over value for money after deadlines for hitting treatment targets slipped as a result of the Omicron surge.

The reported wrangling comes at a time of heightened tension between No 10 and the Treasury.

Last week Chancellor Rishi Sunak publicly distanced himself from a widely discredited claim by Boris Johnson that Sir Keir Starmer failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile when he was director of public prosecutions.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation who previously advised Tony Blair, said the situation is reminiscent of the end of the Blair years.

"Increasingly getting the sense that Johnson now faces the same (but more intense and short term) challenge Tony Blair had in his third term," he tweeted.

"Namely that HMT is loath to agree to any No 10 plans involving money as the Chancellor sees these as opportunistic and wasted on a dying administration."

Mr Javid said they had originally intended to publish the plan in December but it had been put on hold because of the Omicron outbreak.

Meanwhile, the DHSC announced details of a new NHS website which patients will be able to access ahead of planned operations to see waiting times information for their trust.

The My Planned Care platform is due to go live on the NHS website later in February, and will be accessible to patients, family members, carers and medical professionals.

Mr Taylor said it is "frustrating" that the main plan has yet to be published and expressed concern that it should not contain "unrealistic" targets for reducing the backlog.

"It is really important that we are accountable for public money that is spent, but the danger is that, if you take on targets that are unrealistic, you end up skewing clinical priorities in pursuit of those targets," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"This is a frustrating situation for the NHS because there is a plan, it has been agreed with leaders, we are ready to go with it and we want to get on with the work."

Mr Javid acknowledged that the plan will include targets, but said they have to be deliverable.

"We will have some kinds of targets in the new elective recovery plan. Those targets have to be based on clinical need and something that we believe across Government can be delivered," he said.