Rishi Sunak was accused of being “out of touch” with voters after he was captured laughing as he was challenged in the street by a woman who expressed her anger over the dire state of NHS waiting lists.
Cameras caught the awkward exchange as the PM was confronted by voters in Winchester town centre about problems in the health service during a walkabout in Winchester town centre.
Mr Sunak burst out laughing as the woman – a former NHS worker – told him he could solve the problems and “make it all go back to how it used to be”.
Labour pounced on the uncomfortable clip and said it showed that the Tory leader “has no idea of the misery NHS patients are going through”.
In an exchange caught on camera during his visit to the southern blue-wall constituency, Mr Sunak blamed striking junior doctors for the NHS backlog, telling the woman that the recent dip in the number of people waiting “just shows that when there aren’t strikes, we really can make progress”.
Mr Sunak laughed as she said: “You could make it all go back to how it used to be ... where if you had a problem, you could go to the hospital.”
However, Mr Sunak’s laugh appeared to be at a brief remark made about the former NHS worker’s comments from someone else in the background.
The woman then confronted Mr Sunak about lengthy waiting times for hospital treatment, telling him: “My daughter spent seven hours waiting.”
Mr Sunak appeared to turn his back on the woman when she began talking about her daughter. But he then turned to continue the conversation – saying he was “sorry to hear” that her daughter had spent seven hours in A&E.
The PM reiterated that all of the disputes behind NHS strikes had now been resolved, apart from the one with junior doctors. The woman said she “hoped so” and shook his hand.
Sir Keir Starmer said that the clip of Mr Sunak laughing at a voter who was worried about the NHS “reinforces what people think” about the government.
The Labour leader said: “The prime minister doesn’t understand what people are going through,” adding: “We engage with our plan – we don’t laugh and walk away.”
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said the encounter showed that Mr Sunak “has no idea of the misery” NHS patients are going through. “When Sunak asks for their vote later this year, he will get a taste of his own medicine,” he said.
Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine said that “laughing in the face of a former health worker” as they try to explain NHS problems “is frankly shocking”.
She added: “Out of touch does not even begin to describe Rishi Sunak’s attitude to the NHS. The prime minister either does not care or he does not get it.”
Labour has maintained its narrow lead over the Conservatives in crucial blue-wall seats, a new Redfield & Wilton poll has found. The survey has Sir Keir’s party on 31 per cent ahead of Mr Sunak’s party on 30 per cent in 42 seats in the south of England that were won by the Tories in 2019.
Mr Sunak has promised to get waiting lists down as one of his five big pledges ahead of the 2024 general election, which he is planning to call in the “second half” of the year.
Some 6.39 million patients across England were waiting for routine hospital treatment in November, figures suggest, which is down slightly from 6.44 million in October. But the data indicates that the NHS is still failing to hit most of its key performance targets, despite the overall drop.
Just over 11,000 people in England were waiting for more than 18 months to start routine hospital treatment at the end of November, up from just over 10,500 at the end of October.
A&E waiting times also worsened, with 69.4 per cent of patients in England seen within four hours in December, down from 69.7 per cent in November and against a target set for March this year of 76 per cent.
Meanwhile, a leading Boris Johnson supporter has claimed that “at least” 29 Conservative MPs have submitted letters of no confidence against Mr Sunak.
Andrea Jenkyns – a Tory backbencher who has been a consistent critic of Mr Sunak – said that more than two dozen colleagues had told her they had handed in letters.
“Talk of letters is always nonsense – only Sir Graham [Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee] knows how many are in,” one Sunak ally told The Independent. The senior Tory said it would be “madness” to replace the current leader before the general election.
The fresh rows came as Mr Sunak again urged peers to “crack on” with the Rwanda bill in the House of Lords – saying he wanted to get the deportation flights “up and running” as soon as possible.
In a pointed message to the Lords, the PM said on Friday: “I would urge them strongly to crack on with it, because we all just want to get this done ... the country is fed up and frustrated with the merry-go-round on this topic.”
However, peers have rejected the Tory leader’s “bizarre” demand to rush through the legislation. The upper chamber has approved a two-month timetable to scrutinise the bill – refusing to move any more quickly than usual.