Rishi Sunak was taken to task by a disgruntled voter over the state of the NHS as he made a series of visits in the so-called blue wall.
The Prime Minister was told “you could stop it all”, as a woman confronted him on a walkabout in Winchester about lengthy wait times for treatment.
In an exchange caught on camera by Sky News, Mr Sunak appeared to laugh unexpectedly as she told him: “You could make it all go back to how it used to be.”
When another member of the public in the background appeared to make a joke, Mr Sunak laughed nervously.
The first woman continued: “Not literally. But where we had, if you had a problem, you could go to the hospital.
“My daughter spent seven hours waiting.”
Some 6.39 million patients across England were waiting for routine hospital treatment in November, figures suggest, which was down slightly from 6.44 million in October.
But the NHS is still failing to hit most of its key performance targets despite the overall drop, the data indicates.
Some 11,168 people in England were waiting more than 18 months to start routine hospital treatment at the end of November, up from 10,506 at the end of October.
A&E times also worsened, with 69.4% of patients in England seen within four hours in December, down from 69.7% in November and against a target set for March this year of 76%.
Mr Sunak blamed striking doctors for the 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”.
As he continued his walk, Mr Sunak assured her that on NHS strikes “apart from the junior doctors, who are still not saying yes, everyone else has said yes”.
The exchange ended with the Prime Minister shaking hands with the woman.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats hit out at Mr Sunak over the shorter clip, which, when a fuller version was later released, was revealed to be misleading as it made it appear as though he was walking away from the conversation even though it continued.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told broadcasters: “It further reinforces I think what many people across the country think, that this Prime Minister doesn’t talk to people, doesn’t engage, doesn’t understand what so many people are going through.
“We have a terrible problem with our waiting lists and that is why we have been really clear that we would get rid of the non-dom tax status where the super-rich don’t pay their tax in this country and use that to bring down those waiting lists … We have got a plan, we engage with people over our plan, we don’t laugh and walk away.”
Lib Dem Christine Jardine accused the Prime Minister of “laughing in the face of a former health worker whilst they are trying to explain to him the dire straits the NHS” is in, calling it “frankly shocking”.
The PM last year made cutting waiting lists one of the five key priorities of his leadership.
However, data analysed by the PA news agency suggests that despite recent decreases in the waiting list, it is still higher than when the pledge was made.
The waiting list stood at 7.21 million treatments waiting to be carried out in January 2023.
As of November – a month with no industrial action – some 7.61 million treatments were waiting to be carried out.
The NHS is likely to be a key political battleground in the blue wall – traditionally Tory seats in southern England which are vulnerable to gains from either the Liberal Democrats or Labour – during an election year.