People avoiding hospitals during the COVID pandemic has led to huge waiting lists, a minister has said, as he warned nearly nine million people could start coming forward for treatment and place the NHS under enormous pressure.
Health minister Ed Argar gave the daunting figure that day after the government unveiled its plan to tackle record NHS waiting lists as the pandemic eases.
NHS waiting lists are not something which is new, as figures show that in February 2020 - before the pandemic - 4,426,919 were on lists.
Latest estimates show the queues won't begin to fall for at least two years, as medics and hospitals deal with the backlog of patients.
It comes after health secretary Sajid Javid said nine million people stayed away from the NHS during the height of the pandemic as doctors dealt with the influx of COVID-19 patients.
"We knew we had massive challenges before the pandemic but we've had two years of huge disruption to our NHS as it both tackled the pandemic and it wasn't able to do as many normal procedures as it normally would," Argar told Sky News.
"That figure you talked about the waiting list going up, there's about six million people on the waiting list.
"There's about eight and a half million who we would usually expect to have come forward over the past few years who haven't and therefore we've got to make an assessment that many of them will now start coming forward so we have to expect the lists going up before coming down."
Watch: Sajid Javid says the new NHS recovery plan has "big, bold and ambitious" targets
He added that more than 10% of the population in England are on a waiting list.
"I think it's one in five in Wales," he added.
"It's a huge figure, and every one of those people will understandably be concerned.
"They'll either be in pain or they'll be understandably anxious about wanting to find out."
Argar said around 75% of those on the waiting list are not there for treatment but for things like diagnostic tests.
"They will be people who don't know what their situation is.
"So understandably they will be very anxious. That's why we're investing in diagnostics, because people want to know whether they're ok or whether they need to have treatment."
On Tuesday, health secretary Sajid Javid revealed the NHS Elective Recovery Plan, which hopes to see lists begin to fall by March 2024.
It also comes after he warned the NHS COVID backlog would keep getting worse "for a while".
About six million people in England are on the NHS waiting list for treatment, including hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery and tests.
According to the plan, if all 10 million people estimated to have stayed away during the pandemic came forward for treatment, and activity was not increased above pre-pandemic levels, the waiting list could hit 14 million.
Javid said: “Assuming half of the missing demand from the pandemic returns over the next three years, the NHS expects waiting lists to be reducing by March 2024.
“Addressing long waits is critical to the recovery of elective care and we will be actively offering longer-waiting patients greater choice about their care to help bring these numbers down.”
Speaking to reporters on a hospital visit in east London on Tuesday, Javid said that “big, bold and ambitious” targets had been included in the plans.
“Some people would say ‘why don’t you have more targets for every type of procedure?’ The problem with that would be that you would have too many targets and it might hold the NHS back,” he added.
The plan will focus on “four areas of delivery”, including increasing health service capacity together with the independent sector; prioritising diagnosis and treatment; reforming care such as making outpatient appointments more focused on “clinical risk and need”, and increasing activity through dedicated and protected surgical hubs
The plan also sets out how patients will be helped to make use of the NHS App to better manage appointments, bookings and the sharing of information.
As previously announced, some nine million additional treatments and diagnostic procedures will be brought in by 2025, while the admin burden on staff will be cut.
NHS England said this will mean that over a three-year period, patients will be offered about 17 million more diagnostic tests – an increase in capacity of a quarter compared with the three years prior to the pandemic.
However, the plans have not been met with universal praise, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting criticising the lack of plans to bolster the workforce.
"The single biggest challenge facing the NHS is the workforce challenge," he said.
“There are 93,000 staffing vacancies in the NHS today, it is understaffed, overworked, and if he’s not careful he will lose more people than he is able to recruit.”
On NHS reservists proposals, he said: “It seems more Dad’s Army than SAS.
“But this isn’t a Covid backlog, it’s a Tory backlog. After a decade of Tory mismanagement the NHS had record waiting lists of four and a half million before the pandemic.”
Responding, Health Secretary Sajid Javid accused Mr Streeting of “scaremongering”, adding: “He’s well aware that this country has just gone through its biggest health challenge in history.”