Autumn statement: the NHS, waiting lists, and cost-of-living concerns

Charities and healthcare organisations have responded to the Autumn Statement, announced on 22 November, expressing disappointment at “missed opportunities”

A man dressed in smart jeans and a maroon shirt sits in the centre of a row of waiting room chairs. His chin is resting in one hand, while he checks his watch with the other, in an expression suggesting he has been waiting for a while
Getty/Jay Yuno
Organisations have responded to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement, describing “missed opportunities” to address waiting lists in the NHS and raising concerns around plans to tighten health-related benefits.

Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, a membership organisation for healthcare, suggested: “The Government has been clear in its messaging that this mini budget was to be a plan to drive economic growth, yet in downgrading the NHS as a priority it has failed to recognise the important connection between the health of the nation and its prosperity.”

While analysts have warned of a near £1.7bn deficit in the NHS budget, McCay shared: “Only £800m has been allocated and mainly by raiding budgets elsewhere, which will cause long-term harm to the NHS’s ability to transform its services.”

Waiting lists and ‘precarious’ NHS budgets

“The NHS has been hit with this blow as waiting lists for treatment continue to rise, there is increasing long-term sickness in the community and frontline services are bracing for a very challenging winter period,” she continued.

The NHS Confederation also pointed out the pressures of outstanding repairs in NHS facilities, calling capital investment “key” to unlocking productivity.

The Autumn Statement included plans to increase the National Minimum Wage rates for people aged 18–20 by 14.8% to £8.60 an hour, and for 16–17-year-olds and apprentices by 21.2% to £6.40 an hour.

The move to increase National Minimum Wage was welcomed, but McCay added: “It will have an impact on the NHS, particularly in community services and primary care, which will need to see additional funding to cover these costs.”

On 21 November, Nuffield Trust think tank released analysis warning that without additional funding being made available, efforts to cut waiting times and improve NHS services would be casualties of the drive to “plug a £1.7bn financial black hole” in the NHS budget this year.

In response to the Autumn Statement, Natasha Curry, Nuffield Trust deputy director of policy, argued the “NHS budget is in a precarious state.”

“The NHS budget next year is set to flatline; it will be nearly £4bn below where it would have been if increases promised before COVID-19 continued, which will deal a blow to planning and work on the productivity improvements the Government wants to see.”

Responding to the Autumn Statement, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) also expressed concerns that no additional funding had been outlined to address NHS waiting lists.

“By September 2023, 640,736 people in England were waiting for ophthalmology treatment,” the charity said.

Cost-of-living concerns

The Chancelor confirmed benefits will be increased by 6.7% with the change kicking in from April 2024.

RNIB shared ‘relief’ at the measure, particularly that the benefits will rise at the September rate of inflation – an action called for in a joint letter sent ahead of the Autumn Statement by 75 charities in the disability sector.

The letter had called for urgent action to support disabled households through the cost-of-living crisis, highlighting that disabled people have been disproportionately affected, requesting five actions.

RNIB expressed disappointment that no measures were discussed for further financial support to aid disabled people with the rising costs of living.

“Too often we hear that disability benefits fall woefully short of covering the additional costs of sight loss, made worse by the rising cost of living,” RNIB said in a statement.

Earlier in the year, around 50% of blind and partially sighted people reported using disability benefits to cover everyday bills, RNIB shared.

“Today we wanted to see a commitment from the UK Government to review how benefits are set and increased, so blind and partially sighted people can always afford the essentials and manage the extra costs related to sight loss,” the organisation explained.

Last Thursday (23 November), RNIB released new research which illustrated the effect of continued cost-of-living pressures on the mental and physical health of blind and partially sighted people.

Alarm around benefit sanctions

While benefits are set to increase, the Chancellor also spoke of mandatory work placements that would be required of individuals who have not found a job after 18 months of “intensive” support, and those who do not engage in the process for six months would have their claims closed and benefits stopped.

RNIB warned that plants to tighten health-related benefits have “caused alarm among blind and partially sighted people.”

“Disabled people make an incredibly valuable contribution to society, but work isn’t possible in all circumstances. The harsh sanctions announced today are unjust and unnecessary; research on the impact of past measures suggests these simply do not work,” the organisation shared in a statement.

The statement continued: “If the Government is serious about creating job opportunities for disabled people it needs to properly invest in high quality, tailored employment support for disabled people and to fix the Access to Work scheme.”

The scheme can provide support workers, adaptations to work premises and specialised equipment, but at the start of 2023, RNIB highlighted delays and waiting lists “so significant as to risk being unlawful." 

These delays compromise an individual’s ability to secure or maintain employment, RNIB warned.

“We strongly oppose the announcement to introduce tougher rules around the requirements to look for work, which will apply to some out of work benefits,” RNIB shared.

RNIB welcomed other measures in the Autumn Statement including the Advanced British Standard in education – calling on the Government to ensure this is informed by the Curriculum Framework for Children and Young People with Vision Impairment – and the expansion of NHS talking therapies, urging the Government to ensure these are suitable for people with sight loss.