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The Friday Five (09/02/24)

When it comes to healthcare, social care, education, and recovery and criminal justice, there are no slow news weeks – this week is no different. Welcome to the Friday Five, your weekly roundup of all the most noteworthy news items from the sectors above. Let’s crack on.

1. Cancer Treatment Wait Times Worst on Record

England’s cancer waiting times for 2023 hit a historic low, with only 64.1% of patients starting treatment within 62 days of suspicion, leaving nearly 100,000 waiting longer. This decline marks an 11-year worsening trend. Macmillan Cancer Support described the figures as “shocking,” highlighting the emotional and physical toll on patients.  

Despite a slight improvement in diagnosis speed, the NHS faces challenges amid rising demands and industrial action. The issue extends across the UK, with no region meeting the 62-day target in over a decade. The NHS’s winter performance also shows significant delays in A&E and routine treatments, underscoring the need for systemic healthcare reforms.

2. Cash Incentives for Dentists

In an effort to improve access to NHS dental care in England, the government is offering a £20,000 bonus to dentists who practice in areas with poor service availability. This initiative, part of a broader plan to enhance dental care levels, includes increased payments for new patients and dental hygiene programs in schools. However, the British Dentistry Association and Labour criticise the measures as insufficient.  

The “golden hello” aims to attract 240 dentists to underserved “dental deserts” for at least three years, alongside efforts to shift more dentists from private to NHS work through higher standard payment rates. Despite an additional £200m funding, critics argue for more substantial reforms to address the crisis, as access issues persist with treatments below pre-pandemic levels and widespread difficulties in securing NHS dental appointments.

3. Over 100 Schools Featuring Raac to Be Rebuilt

The UK government has committed to rebuilding or refurbishing over 100 school buildings containing hazardous reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), despite unions’ concerns over the lack of new funding. Raac, a cheaper alternative to standard concrete used between the 1950s and 1990s, poses safety risks, highlighted by a beam collapse that led to emergency closures.  

Out of 234 affected schools and colleges in England, 119 will undergo reconstruction or refurbishment, with 110 receiving grants for Raac removal. Despite the return to face-to-face learning, some students are still in temporary accommodations. Critics call for clear timelines and comprehensive plans to address other structural issues in schools, emphasising the need for safety and uninterrupted education.

4. 15 Hours of Free Childcare by April

The Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, has expressed high confidence in the rollout of free childcare for two-year-olds in England by April, offering 15 hours per week to working parents. Despite initial uncertainties, Keegan upgraded her assurance, though she stopped short of confirming availability for all eligible parents.  

The scheme faces criticism over technical issues and staffing delays, with opponents accusing the government of denial. From April, the initiative will extend to children from nine months by September, eventually offering 30 hours of free childcare weekly by September 2025. The government aims to resolve IT and staffing challenges, amidst scepticism from Labour and concerns about fulfilling the ambitious pledge.

5. Systemic Under-Funding in Higher Education Sector According to UNISON Delegates

At the UNISON national higher education conference in Milton Keynes, delegates passed several motions targeting key issues in the sector, such as the gender pay gap, insourcing, and support for members in student unions, emphasising equalities. Jon Richards, UNISON assistant general secretary, criticised the systemic underfunding of higher education by the Westminster government and the resulting student poverty.  

Joanne Tapper advocated for insourcing to address the two-tier workforce problem, highlighting the essential roles of staff during the pandemic. Kath Owen emphasised the critical (yet often overlooked) work of student unions, especially post-COVID. Denn Yearwood urged for immediate action to secure the legacy of the Year of Black Workers, stressing the need for systemic change in the sector.

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Carry on reading