NHS waiting list hits record high in face of pandemic

Jane Kirby and Ian Jones, PA
·5-min read

The number of people in England waiting to start hospital treatment has risen to a new record high.

Figures from NHS England show 4.59 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of January – the highest number since records began in August 2007.

The number waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment stood at 304,044 in the same month – the highest number for any calendar month since January 2008.

One year earlier, in January 2020, the number having to wait more than 52 weeks was significantly lower, at 1,643.

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The data shows the impact of lockdown, with a 54% drop in the number of people admitted for routine treatment in January compared with a year earlier.

Some 139,378 patients were admitted for treatment during the month, compared with 304,888 in January 2020.

The year-on-year decrease recorded in December 2020 was 25%, while in November the drop was 27%.

The figures also show 171,231 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in January – an 11% drop on the 191,852 in the same month the year before.

This follows year-on-year increases of 7% in December and 2% in November.

Urgent referrals where breast cancer symptoms were present – although not initially suspected – were down 13%, from 14,299 in January 2020 to 12,437 in January 2021.

Of those on the waiting list for trauma and orthopaedics, such as hip and knee replacements, 45% had waited longer than 18 weeks.

Meanwhile, nearly 380,000 patients had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test – such as ultrasound or MRI – in January, compared to 46,157 the January before. The monthly total peaked at 571,459 in May 2020.

NHS England said staff had cared for 1.3 million patients without Covid while also dealing with the winter peak of infections, compared to around 847,000 patients during the first wave of the pandemic last April.

More than 100,000 patients seriously ill with the virus needed hospital admission for treatment in January – a third of the total number admitted for coronavirus up to that month.

NHS England said that, when comparing the first and second peaks, around 400,000 more people got pre-planned care and 70,000 more were admitted for emergency care during January’s winter spike than last April.

Professor Stephen Powis, the national medical director for the NHS in England, said: “Admitting more than 100,000 Covid patients to hospital in a single month inevitably had a knock-on effect on some non-urgent care.

“However, thanks to the hard work of NHS staff and the innovations in treatment and care developed over the course of the pandemic, hospitals treated more than one million people with other conditions in January, at the peak of the winter wave, nearly twice as many as they did last April.

“That is a testament to the skill, dedication and commitment nurses, doctors, therapists and countless other staff showed in the most challenging period in NHS history.”

NHS England also said average waiting times for non-urgent surgery have fallen by more than 38% since July.

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It said efforts are being made to tackle the backlog of patients arising from the first wave of the pandemic, with the number on the waiting list for a diagnostic test falling by more than 50,000 between December and January.

Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “This data shows again the enormous challenges we face now and into the future to recover services while also managing constant demand.”

Tim Mitchell, vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “These numbers reflect the dire situation that engulfed our hospitals in January.

“Covid transmission and admissions escalated at an alarming rate, putting tremendous strain on our healthcare system. In London, for instance, surgical staff and facilities were redeployed to look after patients with the virus.

“There was a serious threat hospitals would be pushed beyond their limits, and even urgent cancer surgeries were postponed.

“This disruption meant tens of thousands of planned operations and other non-Covid treatments were put on ice, adding to the enormous backlog of elective surgeries that we now see.

HEALTH Coronavirus
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“Behind today’s statistics are people waiting in limbo. Many will be in considerable pain, others will have restricted mobility and be at risk of isolation and loneliness.

“Dealing with this daunting backlog will take time, and also sustained investment in the NHS.”

Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery praised NHS staff but added: “Today’s data reveals the incredibly steep mountain the NHS must climb as it seeks to clear the substantial backlog of care that has built up during the pandemic.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the true demand for care could become even greater when referrals for treatment begin to increase again following a 30% drop last year.

“These figures, as stark as they are, may just be scratching the surface, with a possible backlog of 6.9 million by the end of 2021,” he added.

The British Heart Foundation said the figures show heart surgery and other heart procedures had fallen 39% between January 2020 and the same month of this year.

Meanwhile, Prostate Cancer UK said the pandemic has led to about 52,000 (23%) fewer urgent prostate cancer referrals in England.