The document, which will set out how the NHS in England will spend the £20.5bn budget increase Theresa May has promised, was due to come out early next week, but that has been postponed until January.
Well-placed sources said the immersion in the Brexit process in Downing Street and the Treasury meant they lacked the “bandwidth” to properly consider the plan, which ministers hope will generate positive headlines.
Further tension between the NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens, and ministers over how ambitious the plan will be – first reported by the Guardian last week – had also held things up, sources added.
The plan will not emerge until 7 January at the earliest – the day MPs return to parliament after their Christmas and new year break. Ministers are aware that launching it in January, with the NHS’s annual “winter crisis” likely to be unfolding, carries risks.
Downing Street is thought to hope that publication in January will help the prime minister start 2019 on an upbeat note by talking about something other than Brexit.
She pledged in June to increase the NHS’s budget by £20.5bn a year by 2023-24 as part of a five-year funding deal she unveiled to coincide with the service’s 70th birthday in July. But she told NHS England to come up with a detailed plan to use the money to improve key areas of care, notably cancer and mental health.
Stevens has privately cautioned ministers that the £20bn will not pay for all the improvements they want, especially to treatment waiting times, as the problem of understaffing grows.