At least 162,000 people have been waiting more than a year for routine operations on the NHS in England – the highest number for more than 12 years.
Latest official figures show 162,888 people were overdue treatment and had been waiting more than 52 weeks in October, the highest since May 2008 and 100 times more than last year.
The total NHS waiting list for routine care at the end of October reached 4.4million, almost on par with the record-high 4.45million last October, and it surged to this level from a low of 3.8m just five months ago, after taking 18 months to rise that far last time.
Other NHS England data revealed a third fewer people are going to A&E than last year and urgent cancer referrals are down nearly 10 per cent.
It comes despite the NHS insisting it is ‘open for business’ after shutting down the vast majority of its services in spring in case it was overwhelmed by Covid – which never became a reality.
Charities said the statistics ‘suggest the backlog for care is worse than expected’ and warned the ramifications ‘will be felt for years to come’.
Experts have warned the Government’s original ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, saves lives’ slogan was so powerful it has left many patients still hesitant to use the NHS – either for fear of catching Covid or burdening the health service.
Latest official figures show 162,888 people have been waiting more than a year for routine operations in October this year, the highest since May 2008, when it was 187,394
Tracey Loftis, head of policy and public affairs at the charity Versus Arthritis said: ‘The elective surgery backlog figures paint an incredibly bleak picture, not just for this winter but into next year too.
‘We are deeply concerned about the NHS’ ability to deliver planned care with added winter pressures and the challenges of the pandemic.
‘As those living with arthritis have struggled to obtain referrals, and many of those with planned appointments have seen their life-changing surgery cancelled, we are just starting to learn the true extent of the elective surgery backlog and the silent victims of the pandemic.
‘All too often we see that people waiting for joint replacement surgery are experiencing knock-on effects, not only physically, but to their mental health too.
‘Their quality of life is greatly affected – people are losing jobs, they are unable to care for relatives and are seeking help for depression, because of the debilitating pain they are in.’
The data released today revealed 1.48million A&E attendances were recorded last month, down 31 per cent from the 2.14million in November 2019.
Emergency admissions were also down by a fifth from 559,556 in November 2019 to 451,800 in November 2020.
David Maguire, senior analyst at The King’s Fund think-tank, said: ‘Today’s statistics suggest that the backlog for care is worse than expected, and the 162,000 people waiting more than a year for care are only the tip of the iceberg.
‘There have been just under 4million fewer referrals for hospital care since March this year compared to the same time last year, with more patients having their conditions managed by their GP or in the community.
‘We don’t know how many more people will need urgent or routine care next year as a result, but this can only add to the considerable backlog of 4.4 million people waiting for care.
‘The NHS went into Covid-19 with a workforce crisis and rising waits for care. Even with the positive news of a vaccine, the impact of Covid-19 on waiting times for NHS patients will be felt for years to come.
‘Despite the best efforts of hard-working staff, there simply isn’t the capacity to get through the backlog quickly. With current staffing levels it will be a challenge just to keep up with demand, let alone reduce the backlog.’
Pandemic has caused ‘hidden backlog’ of FIVE MILLION extra patients, report reveals
The pandemic has caused a ‘hidden backlog’ of almost 5million people needing NHS treatment, a report has revealed.
Referrals for routine hospital care plummeted by a third between January and August.
There were 4.7million fewer people referred for treatment – such as hip, knee and cataract surgery – compared to the same period the year before, the Health Foundation revealed.
The think-tank warned that long waits could now ‘become the norm for millions of people’ unless action was taken to protect non-Covid care.
The suspension of many NHS services and fears over seeking care are likely to be behind the 34 per cent fall.
There were 622,593 fewer referrals for trauma and orthopaedics – which includes surgery for hip and knee replacements.
Ophthalmology services, which include cataract operations, saw 531,660 fewer referrals.
There were also 177,591 fewer people referred for mouth surgery in the first eight months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. And there was also a decline in the numbers referred in thoracic medicine, neurosurgery and urology.
Tim Gardner, who co-wrote the report, warned of a ‘rising tide of unmet need that will have a significant impact on people’s health if a sustainable solution is not found’.
He said: ‘The NHS made significant progress towards fully reopening services after the first peak of the pandemic, but there is still a potentially huge hidden backlog, as the health service is undertaking far fewer routine procedures compared to last year.’
Today’s data showed there were also 203,704 urgent cancer referrals this October, which is 8 per cent lower than the 218,790 last year.
The number of people who were not seen within the critical two-week window after being referred was 24,684 – up 23 per cent on last October’s 18,925.
Catching cancer in its earliest stages is critical in boosting the survival rate and it is a legal right to be seen by a specialist for tests and scans within this time.
Suspected breast cancer patients were the worst-affected, with referrals for the disease down a quarter from 16,232 in October 2019 to 12,148 in October 2020.
Sara Bainbridge, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: ‘The reality is that tens of thousands of people are still missing cancer diagnoses as a result of the disruption caused by the coronavirus.
‘We urgently need to see activity rising above 2019 levels, in order to start clearing the backlog of both diagnoses and treatment in England.
‘Behind each statistic is a real person who has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic and we need the Government to continue providing the NHS with the staffing and resources it needs to catch up, with real acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge.
‘Anyone with any cancer symptoms must also make contacting their GP a priority. We cannot risk cancer becoming the ‘forgotten C’ in this second wave.’
Meanwhile, more than 350,000 patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in October.
A total of 362,100 patients were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy.
The equivalent number waiting for more than six weeks in October 2019 was 33,200. The number has fallen in recent months, however, after peaking at 571,500 in May 2020.
A spokesman for NHS England said: ‘Over the summer, some predicted that waiting lists would hit 10million by Christmas, but, thanks to the work of NHS staff, the waiting list is still lower than it was this time last year, and median waits for planned care shortened over the past month.
‘Although Covid hospitalisations almost doubled during November, for every Covid inpatient the NHS treated, hospitals managed to treat five other inpatients for other health conditions.
‘With cancer referrals and treatments now back above usual levels, our message remains that people should continue to come forward for care when they need it.’
Nuffield Trust deputy director of research Sarah Scobie added: ‘These figures show the enormous impact that the pandemic is having on non-Covid-19 care.
‘Between the two waves of the pandemic, the NHS was not able to catch up with the demand for scheduled care, pushing up the number of people waiting longer than a year to levels not seen since 2008.
‘This build-up will take time to work through but sadly could be just the tip of the iceberg, with those people not coming into the system storing up greater care needs in the future.’
Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said: ‘The NHS is heading into a winter like no other as it works to care for patients with Covid-19, maintain routine services to tackle the backlog of unmet need and manage the seasonal surge in emergency pressures.
‘Routine hospital services have been steadily returning to pre-pandemic levels, but today’s figures suggest this progress may have stalled in the face of the rise in patients hospitalised with Covid-19 during the second wave.’