The health secretary has twice refused to say that the NHS is functioning properly, as he defended delays to capping the cost of social care, stressing he was focusing on the “immediate issue” of an operations backlog and ambulance delays.

Steve Barclay said it had been a difficult decision to push back by two years plans put in place by Boris Johnson to “fix social care”, and admitted the health service was under “severe pressure”.

An estimated 540,000 people in England are awaiting social care, financial assessment or a review.

Barclay denied that the government had given up on capping social care costs, and he was challenged on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg by a viewer who said the logjam of people requiring care was “literally killing people”.

Barclay said: “It’s a very difficult decision to delay those reforms. We remain committed to them, but we recognise there’s an immediate issue – particularly in hospitals – where we’ve got 13,500 people who are ready to discharge but we’re not able to do so. That is having a knock-on effect in areas like ambulances and the flow through hospital.”

The government announced this week that changes finalised a year ago designed to meet the 2019 Tory manifesto promise to “fix social care” were to be delayed. They include raising the amount of assets a person can have before getting state funding for social care from £23,250 to £100,000, as well as capping lifetime care costs at £86,000.

Barclay blamed the delay on the pandemic, saying that the number of people waiting more than a year for an operation had been just 1,300 before Covid and had now risen to 400,000.

“Delaying these [social care] reforms enables us to fix the real challenges we’re seeing in our A&E departments and in our ambulance services,” he said.

Asked twice if the health service was working properly, Barclay did not say yes. Instead, he said the NHS was “under severe pressure” and that despite “the very real challenges” in drawing up the chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement, there would be an extra £6.6bn over the next two years for health in England.

Explaining why he wanted to scale back the number of NHS targets, Barclay told Sky News there was a place for them, but added: “If everything is a priority, nothing’s a priority.”

He said officials at a local level were “better able to tailor the priorities for their local needs”.

As nurses prepare to strike for the first time, Barclay said his “door is open” and he had met the heads of the Royal College of Nurses and Unison this week.

Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB union, said he was “incandescent” at the health secretary’s reassurances. He said Barclay was “deluded and pretty dishonest” about there having been any productive meetings that could curtail strike action.

He called for the government to axe the non-domicile status for about 70,000 super-rich people who live in the UK but pay no tax on their offshore income, and reinstate the cap on bankers’ bonuses to help give more money to the NHS.

Meanwhile, the shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, refused to be drawn on how much money Labour would give the NHS but said the party would fund it properly by growing the economy.

“We’re not in government today, and when we are in government we will make a full assessment of the needs of the NHS and fund it properly,” he said.

“You’ve got to grow your economy. One of the ways in which you grow your economy, particularly after 12 years of this very poor economic performance under the Conservatives, is that we’ve got to invest in jobs and skills.

“So, we will create new jobs by green industrial investment in renewables and in hydrogen, but we will also help more people move into work, because we’ve got sickness rates – 2.5 million people forced out of work because of sickness, increasing numbers of over-50s leaving the labour market as well.”

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