Around 725,000 fewer people were admitted to English hospitals for non-urgent treatment in March and April than would normally be the case, the head of the NHS has revealed.
The figures reveal how the pressure imposed on hospitals by the coronavirus pandemic has affected other patients.
Simon Stevens told the Commons health select committee on Tuesday that, at its lowest point, the number of elective admissions for procedures such as cataract removals, hernia repairs, or hip or knee operations, fell to about 25% of the anticipated level.
“The number of elective admissions in March and April was around 725,000, lower than what we might have expected given pre-covid levels of growth,” he said. “The drop was greatest in April when there were around 530,000 fewer elective episodes. That number has begun to recover quite significantly since then and as we speak we think we’re now somewhere north of 55% of pre-covid elective activity levels.”
Stevens said he expected activity to be at approximately 75% by July or August.
In the case of cancer treatment, Stevens said there had been a drop-off in referrals in March and April, but the proportion of treatments being started remained high (96%) relative to what would usually be expected.
Experts have suggested the interruption to treatment could cause the number of patients waiting for a planned operation to rise sharply from 4.2 million to as many as 10 million by the end of the year.
Asked about how long it would take to clear the backlog, Stevens was noncommittal. “I suspect, contrary to some of the commentary, the waiting list will go down before it goes up, potentially significantly. The reason for that being that fewer people are coming forward and being referred on to a waiting list than was the case before. And so actually we’ve seen the overall waiting list drop by over half a million people between February and April, but we expect that as referrals return that will go up quite significantly over the second half of the year.”
Stevens said hospitals had treated more than 100,000 coronavirus patients over a 90-day period and there were still 3,000 people with the virus being cared for on wards. He said decisions on extending a deal that gives the NHS access to private hospital capacity would help the service understand what resources and beds it would have available.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, told the committee it was crucial to retain capacity in private hospitals as well as the Nightingale hospitals, opened by the NHS in five locations to help deal with the pandemic.
“We need that independent sector capacity, we need to keep the Nightingales in some form,” he said. “We also know, and I think there’s been a very clear recognition of this, that we simply don’t have enough general medicine beds. So we need to have that extra bed capacity better funded.”
Stevens highlighted the importance of general testing, saying 80% of patients on waiting lists are typically waiting for a test or outpatient appointment, rather than admission for an operation. He said dedicated diagnostic and endoscopy suites offering three sessions a day were being opened, the first at the Exeter Nightingale on Monday.