NHS waiting list in England hits record 7mn

A record 7mn people were waiting for hospital treatment in England at the end of August, according to the latest NHS monthly performance figures released on Thursday.

The total rose from 6.8mn a month earlier and included 2.75mn patients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment and 387,000 waiting more than a year.

More recent data for accident and emergency departments showed that only 57 per cent of patients were seen within four hours in September, a sharp drop on the 76 per cent for the same month in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The deterioration came despite a 2 per cent drop in the numbers attending A&E last month compared to the same month in 2019.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, called on the government to address the staffing and funding crisis the health service is facing. “The NHS will continue to work at full pelt but there is no easy fix to filling its 132,000 vacancies or addressing the horrifying real-terms funding cut that services continue to face,” he said.

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“If the government truly cares about the NHS, it must set out investment for a fully funded workforce plan and guarantee that it will protect the NHS’s capital budgets to ensure that patients are supported, both ahead of winter and in the longer term.”

Taylor said “the aftershock of the pandemic” was still affecting the NHS, with more than 10,000 people in hospital suffering coronavirus infections, but it was not solely responsible for the “sky-high” pressures on the healthcare system.

However, the figures did include a few bright spots, such as fewer patients waiting for a diagnostic test in August compared to July. Sarah Clarke, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said that was a “testament to the extremely hard work of healthcare staff,” but said the waiting list of 1.5mn was still too high.

“Staffing shortages are the biggest barrier to cutting waiting lists. The new secretary of state has promised a long-term workforce plan — this needs to come by the end of 2022,” she added.

Professor Philip Banfield, council chair of the British Medical Association, said: “Whatever way you look at this, these figures are a damning example of what happens when a government persists in failing to properly invest in or resource its health service.”

Responding to the figures Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “Despite huge pressures on the NHS this summer, the incredible work of colleagues across the country meant that in August we delivered more potentially life-saving cancer checks than ever before, and cut 18 month waits by 60 per cent over the last year.

“This was despite continued pressure from Covid patients in hospital, which has now risen to more than double the numbers seen in August, and more of the most serious ambulance callouts than before the pandemic,” Powis said

In a further sign of the pressure on public services, figures released on Thursday showed the overstretched criminal justice system was struggling to cope.

The backlog of cases in the crown court jumped to 61,212 in August from 60,380 in July, according to the Ministry of Justice. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 the backlog stood at 40,000.

The latest figures reflect the full impact of the industrial action taken by criminal barristers who staged sporadic walkouts in July and August, after rejecting the government’s offer on legal aid fees, before going on a permanent strike from September 5. They returned to work on Tuesday this week after accepting a new improved offer.

additional reporting by Jane Croft

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