Record numbers of patients in England are waiting to start hospital treatment, with nearly one in 10 of those waiting for longer than a year, official figures show.
The latest NHS England referral to treatment statistics show 4.7m people were waiting to start treatment at the end of February this year – the highest number since records began in 2007.
Of those, 8% (387,885) were waiting more than 52 weeks for routine operations and treatments. This represents a 240-fold surge from just 1,613 people in February 2020.
The figures also show 174,624 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in February, a fall of 8% from 190,369 a year before, as cancer charities raise concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on cancer treatment and diagnosis.
Responding to the figures, Sarah Scobie, director of research at Nuffield Trust, warned the NHS ‘has been set back years as it faces a battle to clear these major backlogs of postponed care’.
She continued: ‘Healthcare staff have made huge sacrifices during this pandemic, but more will be asked of them on the path to recovery. That is concerning when the latest NHS staff survey results in England show that more of them working in Covid-settings have suffered illness from work-related stress.’
Despite growing waiting lists, figures also showed the number of people admitted for routine hospital treatment was down by 47% in February from last year, falling from 285,918 patients to 152,642. The year-on-year decrease recorded in January was 54%, while in December 2020 the drop was 25%.
NHS England pointed out that it carried out 1.9m elective procedures and operations in January and February, while also providing treatment for nearly 140,000 coronavirus patients.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, admitted that treating more than 400,000 with Covid-19 throughout the pandemic has ‘inevitably had an impact on the NHS’.
But he continued: ‘It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of staff that they managed to deliver almost a million ops and procedures in the face of the winter wave and improve waiting times for them, along with A&E and ambulance services.’
RCN chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair said the data ‘shows the scale of the challenge the NHS will face in returning services to normal’, adding that nursing staff must be ‘central to any recovery plan’.
She continued: ‘Ministers must now be honest about the real pressures on the NHS and properly invest in the workforce that is needed for the long-term delivery of safe patient care.’