Health and Wellness

The NHS is failing our children, says top children’s doctor Camilla Kingdon

Children are being forgotten by the government as they face “disgraceful” waiting times for NHS treatment, Britain’s top paediatric doctor has warned.

Dr Camilla Kingdon said children are being failed because their care is not being treated as a priority, despite considerable progress in reducing waiting times for adults.

In her final interview as president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, she also issued a stark warning over the impact of poverty on young people’s health, lamenting the rise in the number of children being treated for severe lung disease due to damp and poor ventilation in inadequate housing.

Many parents cannot afford to be at their dying or sick child’s bedside due to cost-of-living pressures – an issue which has grown significantly worse in the past five years, she said.

She told The Independent: “Children simply need to be made a priority. We cannot afford to be ignoring this problem.”

The latest NHS figures show the backlog for children’s hospital care has risen again, increasing from 387,000 in August to 412,000 in January, despite the adult waiting list falling since October.

The waiting list for children’s community services, such as speech and language and autism, hit a record high of 236,992 in December, up from 206,504 in October 2022. Experts have long warned that services for young people have been neglected in favour of adult lists.

The Independent first revealed warnings over the rising children’s waiting list in leaked documents last year. Several stories by this publication have also exposed the extent of the crisis in children’s mental healthcare.

Dr Kingdon, who ends her three year presidency next week, warned there’s “a lot of work to do” as she urged ministers to drum up the political will to rectify the situation. She called on Rishi Sunak to appoint a dedicated children’s health minister so young people are not forgotten when major decisions are made.

“We fear children are being left behind again in health policy and the wider political agenda,” she said. “While there has been considerable progress in reducing wait times for adult treatment in recent months, children’s waiting lists continue to grow.

“If a child is waiting 52 weeks for treatment and they’re three years old, 52 weeks is a third of their life. I think it’s a disgrace. Children have to be prioritised in a way they haven’t been.”

Her comments come as new figures show an estimated 4.33 million children are living in households of relative low income in the year to March 2023 – the highest since comparable records for the UK began in 2002/03.

Separate figures from think tank The King’s Fund found deep poverty experienced by children in 2022 was 88 per cent high than in 2019, with one million “destitute children” in the UK.

Deep poverty is when household income is less than 40 per cent of the UK median income. In 2021, this equated to £109 a week, after housing costs.

Dr Kingdon, who works at St George’s Hospital in south London, said she felt an “inescapable responsibility” to speak up on how poverty is affecting children’s health.

She said: “The truth is the situation – the incredible challenges that poverty is playing with day to day lives – is getting worse.

“We look after incredibly sick babies, who may spend sometimes months in hospital. I see poverty and when parents can’t afford to visit their babies.

“When a father can’t take a different time off work to visit his baby, because he’s on a zero hours contract and actually taking time off means less income. It’s as simple as that.”

She said issues linked to poverty, such as inadequate housing, also make it difficult to safely discharge babies home.

“I can’t describe to you the number of conversations I have with families about their housing, and have written letters on their behalf. We know that our housing stock in the UK is some of the worst in Europe.

“It reflects the difficulties we’ve got in being able to discharge a baby safely home. A lot of the babies have had very severe lung disease and that’s about inadequate ventilation in the homes, damp and mould on the walls, and so on.”

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has levied several warnings to the NHS and government over worsening waiting lists for children’s care.

The Department for Health and Social Care was approached for comment.

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