Rishi Sunak wrong to say 18-week waits have fallen since pledge

31 January 2024
What was claimed

The government has got 18-week waits down by 90%.

Our verdict

Incorrect. 18-week waits for non-emergency NHS treatment in England have risen by 4-9% since a government pledge to reduce waiting lists. The exact amount depends on which month you use as a starting point.

Last January, I set bringing down waiting lists as one of the Government’s five priorities. There is still more to do, but we are making real progress. Despite the effect of strikes […] we have virtually eliminated two-year waits and got 18-week waits down by 90 per cent.

The Prime Minister said in a comment piece in the Telegraph that the government had substantially reduced 18-week waits since January 2023. This is not true.

Waits for non-emergency treatment of more than 18 weeks in the NHS in England have actually risen in that time. Health is devolved so that NHS England is the part of the health service that the UK government controls.

It seems likely that Mr Sunak meant to talk about 18-month waits, a much smaller category in the data, which has fallen substantially in the last year.

Politicians, and ministers especially, must take care to use official statistics correctly, so that the public isn’t misinformed.

Full Fact has approached the Telegraph and Mr Sunak’s office for comment.

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The NHS pledge

On 4 January 2023, Mr Sunak gave a speech in which he made five pledges about what his government would do. The fourth of these was: “NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly”.

Consultant-led referral to treatment waiting times (or RTT) data for England is the most commonly cited source for NHS waiting lists, although there are other types of waiting list, as we’ve explained before.

Even so, it’s not clear which starting point in the data to use to judge the government’s performance on this pledge.

The most recent data available at the time of the speech covered waits for non-emergency treatment in NHS England at the end of October 2022. However, the data for the end of January 2023 itself is now available as well, as are the months in between.

Whichever way you look at it, however, the number of waits above 18 weeks is higher in the latest data (for November 2023) than in any of these months—between 4% and 9% higher, depending on which month you choose.

In the same period, the number of waits above 18 months has fallen by between 76% and 80%. The 90% figure used by Mr Sunak is probably a comparison with September 2021, which is a starting point that the government and NHS England have used before to make this claim.

Have waits got better or worse?

More people (5-6%) and more cases (4-5%) are on the waiting list for non-emergency treatment according to the latest data, compared with when Mr Sunak made his pledge.

However, waiting times arguably say more about people’s experience of the NHS than the number of people who are waiting.

As Mr Sunak said, the number of extremely long waits has fallen substantially over the last year. But these amount to a few tens of thousands of cases, compared with the millions that involve waits of under a year.

The median length of wait for all cases—meaning the middle value in an ordered list—is 14.4 weeks in the latest data, for the end of November 2023. This figure has improved in the last two months and is slightly shorter than waits at the end of January 2023, but it remains generally longer than the median wait in October-December 2022.

In short, people are typically waiting longer for treatment than they did a year earlier. The situation may have improved recently, but it is hard to know, because waiting times have often improved in the autumn of past years, before getting worse again in the winter.

Image courtesy of HM Treasury

We took a stand for good information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Rishi Sunak and The Telegraph to request a correction regarding this claim.

The Telegraph amended the article and published a correction.

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