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LONDON – A plan to reduce lengthy wait times in England’s state-run National Health Service for elective and cancer care by 2025 is at risk, a report said on Thursday, as funding falls behind inflation and it faces issues with staffing and productivity.

Finance minister Jeremy Hunt will set out a raft of tax rises and spending cuts later in the day, with unions warning that the Autumn Statement is the last chance to “save the NHS”, and lining up potential strike action over the winter.

Health service officials have warned of an exceptionally tough winter, as the NHS tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which put a strain on services, disrupted non-COVID procedures and fueled a staffing crisis.

The report by the National Audit Office said that NHS England’s targeted pace of recovery in elective and cancer care services was “far from guaranteed, with many risks and challenges threatening to push the recovery further off track.”

“Government faces a monumental challenge in fixing NHS backlogs,” said opposition Labour lawmaker Meg Hillier, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, which she said had “previously warned government against over-optimistic plans.”

Health minister Steve Barclay told the NHS Providers Conference on Wednesday that he wanted to identify practical measures he could take to support the NHS’ workforce against the difficult economic backdrop.

“Tackling the COVID backlogs is our absolute priority,” a health ministry spokesperson said. “The NHS is making strong progress by slashing waits of 18 months by 60% in a year and virtually eliminating waits of more than two years.”

NHS England is aiming for elective care waits of more than one year to be eliminated by March 2025, and that by March next year, patients waiting for cancer referrals should return to pre-pandemic levels.

But the NAO said that even if these targets are met, many patients will still be waiting longer than they should be according to the standards set for the service.

Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at The King’s Fund health charity, said that waiting-time targets had been missed for many years even before the pandemic, showing “just how deep rooted these funding and staffing challenges are.”

“The government’s actions need to match its rhetoric– if it’s serious about reducing waiting lists and improving care for patients then the Autumn Statement later today should be a story of investment,” he said. — Reuters