The record number of patients waiting for hospital treatment shows the “calamitous impact” of coronavirus on waiting times in England, a leading surgeon has said.
New figures published on Thursday show that a total of 4.46 million people were waiting to start hospital treatment in England at the end of November 2020, the highest number since records began.
This compares with 4.42 million in November 2019 and 4.45 million in October that year – the previous highest number in the data which goes back to August 2007.
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “Today’s figures show the calamitous impact of Covid-19 on wait times for operations.
“In November, a record number of patients were waiting for hospital treatment.
“For thousands of people in this country, a corrective operation is the best way to relieve debilitating pain and get them back up on their feet, back to work and enjoying life again.
“Many of us were complaining about the pain of the lockdown restrictions in November.
“However, we should remember all those people waiting for an operation, who had their physical pain to deal with, on top of the pain of lockdown.”
Prof Mortensen also warned that a “huge hidden waiting list” was building up under lockdown.
“When we eventually emerge from this crisis, we will need sustained investment to treat all those who have been waiting patiently for treatment.”
The NHS England figures also showed that the number of people having to wait more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment in England stood at 192,169 in November 2020, the highest number for any calendar month since May 2008.
In November 2019 the number having to wait more than 52 weeks to start treatment stood at just 1,398.
The total number of people admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was down 27% to 222,810 in November compared with 303,193 in November 2019.
NHS England data also showed that around one in five major hospital trusts in England had no spare adult critical care beds on January 10 – the latest date for which statistics are available.
Meanwhile, 5,513 patients waited longer than an hour to be handed over from ambulance teams to A&E staff at hospitals in England in the week to January 10 – the highest weekly figure so far this winter.
A handover delay does not always mean a patient has waited in the ambulance, they may have been moved into an A&E department but staff were not available to complete the handover.
A&E attendances at hospitals in England also continued to be below levels of a year ago with 1.5 million attendances recorded in December 2020, down 32% from 2.2 million in December 2019.
NHS England figures also show that a total of 205,182 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in November 2020, up from 201,498 in November 2019 – a rise of 2%.
A total of 330,346 patients were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy.
NHS England said that A&E visits were 50% higher in December than during the first Covid peak in April, showing essential services were being maintained.
It also said that median waits for elective care had fallen from 11.1 weeks in October to 10.4 weeks in November while cancer treatments and referrals were back to “usual levels”.
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Despite there being almost 23,000 people with Covid in England’s hospitals at the end of December – 20% higher than the April peak – 50% more people still came forward for urgent care in our A&Es, twice as many elective treatments were delivered and around three times as many diagnostic checks were carried out, showing that essential non-Covid care was being maintained even as the virus began to get out of control.
“The NHS has cared for nearly a quarter of a million Covid-positive patients already, who collectively spent more than two million nights in hospital, while also keeping emergency care running.
“These figures are a stark reminder that the NHS is facing an exceptionally tough challenge, and that while still millions of people are getting care for non-Covid health problems in the NHS in England – indeed for every Covid patient in hospital, the NHS is treating three people for other conditions – there is no doubt that services will continue to be under additional pressure until and unless this virus is under control, which is why it’s so important that everyone practises social distancing and follows national guidance.”
NHS England also said that people should continue to attend A&E if they need emergency care.
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at The King’s Fund, said the figures showed the NHS was under the “most extreme pressure” in recent history.
He added: “Staff are exhausted, wards are overflowing and patients face long waits for routine and emergency care, with many procedures being cancelled or postponed.
“Staff are going the extra mile, putting themselves under mental and physical strain.
“Vaccines will provide some relief but one of the lessons that must be learned is that the goodwill and hard work of frontline staff is not enough to overcome long-standing staff shortages and reduce waiting times which were rising well before the pandemic struck.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said it was vital to complete NHS staff vaccinations to ease pressure on the NHS.
He added: “These figures show the alarming and sustained pressure the NHS has been under for months now – impacting all areas of treatment.
“It is vital that we now have a Herculean effort to roll out at least two million vaccines a week, with NHS staff vaccinations completed in the next week, to ease pressure on our NHS.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The NHS is facing a huge challenge and we will continue to support them in every way possible.
“It is all the more reason for people to ensure that they are following the guidance and staying at home.”