Almost 140,000 patients waiting longer than a year for NHS treatment

The NHS has not achieved its 18-week target since February 2016

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Thursday 12 November 2020 17:46 GMT
Thousands of patients are being forced to wait longer for NHS treatments
Thousands of patients are being forced to wait longer for NHS treatments (Getty Images)

Almost 140,000 NHS patients in England had been waiting longer than a year for hospital treatment as of September – the highest number since 2008.

According to the latest NHS data, which was published today, 139,545 patients had waited more than 52 weeks to start their treatment. In September last year, the figure was just 1,305.

In total across England, 1.72 million people had been waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment, down from 1.9 million in August but up sharply from September 2019 when 672,112 patients had been waiting over 18 weeks.

The NHS has a statutory target to begin most routine treatment within 18 weeks, but that target has not been achieved since February 2016.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced most hospitals to suspend all but essential care during the first wave, has meant a huge backlog in patients waiting and many millions of patients who have yet to even be referred.

The total number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals was down 27 per cent in September compared with a year ago. A total of 209,562 patients were admitted for treatment during the month, down from 288,230 in September 2019.

The year-on-year decrease recorded in August was 43 per cent, and in July the drop was 55 per cent.

Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at the King's Fund think tank, said staff were working hard to meet the health needs of people with and without Covid-19.

But he said it was “already clear that hospitals are having to prioritise the sickest patients and once again delay some planned procedures”.

He added: “With nearly 140,000 people now waiting over a year for care and the worst of winter yet to come, it's clear the NHS won't be back to ‘normal’ any time soon.

“Even before the pandemic, waiting times were slipping as the NHS faced a workforce crisis, with more than 40,000 nursing posts vacant.

“For the NHS to have any chance of substantially reducing waiting times for patients before the end of this parliament, it will need significant long-term investment to grow and support its workforce in line with the government's manifesto commitments to increase the number of doctors, nurses and other staff.”

Thursday’s data also shows that over 400,000 patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in September.

A total of 420,445 patients were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy. The equivalent number in September 2019 was 38,750.

The number has fallen in recent months after peaking at 571,459 in May.

There has been progress on cancer referrals, with GPs making 199,801 urgent referrals in England in September, up from 195,196 in September 2019 — a rise of 2 per cent.

That compares with a year-on-year drop of 15 per cent in August, 19 per cent in July and 21 per cent in June.

Accident and emergency attendances at hospitals in England continued to be below the levels of a year ago.

A total of 1.6 million attendances were recorded in October, down 26 per cent from 2.2 million in the same month of 2019.

NHS England said the fall is “likely to be a result of the Covid-19 response”, suggesting people are still staying away from A&E departments because of the coronavirus outbreak.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “Despite rapidly rising Covid hospitalisations, cancer services are now back at pre-pandemic levels, GP appointments are running ahead of this time last year, and hospitals have made particular progress in bringing back overnight elective operations.

“But it is clear that where there are higher levels of Covid, we are seeing an impact on routine non-urgent care, so the public can play their part by continuing to help stop the spread of the virus.”

According to NHS England, the NHS was back to 80 per cent of overnight planned operations at the end of October compared with the same point last year, as well as 100 per cent of CT scans and 88 per cent of MRIs.

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