14 Jul 2023

Cutting waiting times won’t grow the economy. A problem for Labour?

Yesterday's OBR report shows 'limited correlation' between reducing waiting times and improving economic activity. With this a key pledge in Labour's health mission, does it pose a challenge for their messaging going forward?

Louie Freeman-Bassett
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Yesterday’s Office for Budget Responsibility ‘Fiscal risks and sustainability’ report might give the Labour health team cause for concern.

It concludes that “rising NHS waiting list itself is unlikely to have been a significant driver of rising inactivity”.

Why?

Because a large majority on waiting lists are either in employment already or not of working age.

The median wait time on lists is also 15 weeks, meaning it’s “a vastly higher-turnover group than those who are inactive due to long-term sickness.”

This “limited correlation” is so limited that even if waiting lists were cut by half this would only reduce working age inactivity by around 25,000 – that’s out of 2.6 million people of working age outside the labour force for health reasons.

This poses a problem for Labour’s flagship policy goal of reducing NHS waiting times.

Specifically: “The last Labour Government reduced waiting times by using the private sector, increasing staff numbers and spreading good practice. We did this before. We will do it again.”

You can see why it’s appealing.

It’s very easy for the public to understand.

It anchors the sometimes contentious use of the private sector to a common sense goal that’s hard to argue with.

And it aligns the current Labour Party with its electorally successful predecessor.

And clearly it’s important in policy terms too – the 2023 GP Patient Survey, also released yesterday, shows this vividly.

But it caps Labour’s ability to link its leading health mission with its more important political objective of economic growth.

You can say cutting waiting times will help patients, save money and is just the right thing to do.

But you probably can’t say it’ll contribute to creating highest sustained growth in the G7.

Instead, given the obvious role health inequalities are having (also made clear by the OBR) and the increasingly visible wider social impacts of poor health, there may be an argument to spotlight the care in the community or preventative health prongs of the Labour mission in the coming months.

It might take some work to get the thumbs up in focus groups, but could pay dividends down the line as Labour’s arguments come under increasing scrutiny.

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