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NHS waiting lists reach record high of 5.1 million

But numbers waiting over a year to start treatment fall as NHS trusts increase recovery efforts after pandemic

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Thursday 10 June 2021 19:24 BST
The number of people waiting for treatment in the NHS has hit 5 million for the first time
The number of people waiting for treatment in the NHS has hit 5 million for the first time (Getty/iStock)

The number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment has risen to a new record high, with data showing 2,700 patients have waited over two years to be seen.

A total of 5.12 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of April 2021, according to the latest data from NHS England.

This is the highest number since records began in August 2007.

The number of people having to wait more than a year to start treatment stood at 385,490 in April 2021 – down from 436,127 in the previous month, but still around 35 times the number waiting a year earlier in April 2020, which was 11,042.

For the first time, NHS England has included data on patients waiting beyond a year, with 64,959 patients waiting 18 months or more and 2,722 waiting more than two years.

New data obtained by the Health Service Journal has also revealed that some urgent patients, who need to be seen within a month or they risk losing a limb or dying, have been made to wait more than a year.

Data from 23 hospital trusts between February and April showed significant numbers of these priority patients waiting over a month.

One trust told the HSJ it had 955 priority patients waiting over a month, 595 had waited 12 weeks or more, and 160 had waited over a year.

NHS England said operations and other routine care were ahead of ambitions set out earlier this year for the restarting of services after the pandemic.

Surgery and other planned treatments were at 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, ahead of the 75 per cent ambition NHS England had set hospitals in April.

Overall, since Coronavirus hit the UK, the NHS has treated 400,000 Covid patients.

Alongside the figures for surgery, the newly published data shows that more than 300,000 patients in England were waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in April.

A total of 310,802 patients were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including MRI scanning, ultrasound and gastroscopy. But the figure is down on a year ago, when there were 468,864 waiting more than six weeks for diagnostic tests. The monthly total peaked at 572,615 in May 2020.

Deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, Dr Sarah Scobie, said: “NHS staff continue to work under real pressure to get operations, tests and treatment underway and make a dent in the troubling backlog. The number of patients waiting over a year for planned care, usually surgery, has fallen in the latest available data for April 2021, but this remains a very large number of people at risk from worsening conditions – and we know that nearly 3,000 people have waited over two years.

“Rising cases and early signs of more hospitalisations in Delta variant hotspots are a real concern. If Covid demand rises alongside growing non-Covid need, the NHS will be forced again to do more with less, given the reduction in bed numbers due to social distancing and ongoing staff exhaustion and shortages.”

NHS England has invested £1bn to help hospitals get back on target in regard to routine surgery.

Professor Stephen Powis, medical director for NHS England, said: “Despite the extensive disruption to care caused by the pandemic, it’s encouraging that today’s figures show routine operations, cancer care and mental health care have now all rebounded sharply. Average waits for non-urgent care have fallen to 11 weeks, and the number of people waiting over 52 weeks fell by more than 50,000 in April. Mental health services are back at pre-pandemic levels, and treatment rates for cancer are also now back to usual levels, with nearly 19 out of 20 people starting treatment for the disease within one month.”

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