Record 4.6million people are now on NHS waiting list in England

Record 4.6million people are now on NHS waiting list for routine operations with more suspected cancer patients than ever not being seen by a doctor within a fortnight, figures show

  • NHS stats show that waiting times for surgery and cancer appointments surging
  • Hospitals are scrambling to catch up with backlog caused by Covid pandemic 
  • Waiting list for routine ops has 170,000 more people than it did in January 2020

A record 4.59million people are now on the NHS waiting list for surgery, official stats show as the health service scrambles to catch up with a Covid backlog.

The number of people in the queue for routine procedures such as hip and knee replacements has surged by 170,000 since last January.

And a staggering 304,000 people have already been waiting for more than a year, according to the figures for January, a number that is 100 times higher than at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Hospitals had to turf out patients during the first wave of Covid, and some during the second wave, and thousands of people saw their treatment delayed or cancelled.

Cancer waiting times have also spiked because of the delays, with the proportion of suspected patients getting seen by a specialist within the two-week waiting time target down to just 83 per cent.

It fell from 88 per cent in December last year and means 28,443 people with suspected cancer waited more than a fortnight to find out for sure in January. 

The NHS is desperately trying to catch up with a backlog in patients caused by a hospital shutdown across the country during the height of the Covid crisis (stock image)

Figures from NHS England show that 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 month since January 2008.

A year earlier, the number of people waiting over a year was just 0.5 per cent of the current number, at 1,643.  

The data showed the impact of the pandemic lockdown, with a 54 per cent 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 first month of this year, compared with 304,888 in January 2020. 

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.

‘This week has been manic and flow through acute medical units is suffering due to the necessary infection control measures in place and the effect that has on reducing bed numbers… 

‘Elective work is restarting imminently and this will add to the pressure on already exhausted staff.’

Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, added: ‘With fewer routine operations carried out and the pressure on services remaining high throughout 2021, this number will grow further.

‘We also know that referrals from GPs have also fallen in January, which means there is a hidden patient group not yet on the waiting list that will need treatment but haven’t come forward or entered onto waiting lists. 

‘The pandemic and lockdown will have stopped some people from seeking treatment. But we do not yet know the additional demand this will heap onto services in the future. Exhausted NHS staff will have a lot of work ahead to clear record backlogs, which will need to be considered carefully.’ 

The cancer waiting times getting longer has caused serious concerns among experts and charities, who warn the pandemic has caused a ‘timebomb’ of the disease.

Fewer people than usual saw their doctors during the lockdowns, meaning many lived for longer with their cancer growing unchecked.

Dr Hans Kluge, World Health Organization director for Europe, said the impact the pandemic had had on cancer treatment was ‘catastrophic’.

He warned many more people will die in the coming years, particularly of breast and bowel cancer, for which screening appointments have been postponed.

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