LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was confronted on Friday by a woman angry over conditions in the state-funded National Health Service, where long waiting lists for treatment have been exacerbated by months of strikes by healthcare workers.
Sunak, who made cutting waiting lists one of his top five priorities last year, blamed the industrial action for the long waiting times, and said the backlog for treatment fell during October and November when there were no strikes.
The woman in Winchester in southern England told Sunak he had the power to stop the strikes, and complained her daughter had waited for seven hours to get treatment.
“You could make it all go back to how it used to be,” she said.
Sunak – and others around the pair – laughed at that answer. A member of his team then appeared to try to move him but the pair continued speaking briefly before shaking hands.
The NHS, which provides healthcare free at the point of use, has faced months of industrial action by nurses, doctors and ambulance staff over the last year. This has made it harder for the NHS to recover from the COVID pandemic.
Earlier this month, junior doctors staged a six-day walkout over pay, the longest strike in the NHS’s history.
A national election is expected in the second half of this year, with polls showing Sunak’s Conservatives trailing the opposition Labour Party by around 20 percentage points.
Wes Streeting, Labour’s health spokesman, said Sunak’s response to the voter showed he had “no idea of the misery” faced by patients.
“When patients try to tell him, he laughs in their faces,” he said. “When Sunak asks for their vote later this year, he will get a taste of his own medicine.”
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Editing by Kylie MacLellan and Timothy Heritage)