The number of patients waiting longer than the recommended 18 weeks to start planned NHS hospital treatment has reached the highest number in almost a decade by exceeding half a million, official figures show.
NHS England referral to treatment (RTT) statistics for April show 500,068 patients waited more than 18 weeks to start planned treatment, the highest figure since August 2008 when 520,000 people were waiting 18 weeks or more for planned treatment.
The Royal College of Surgeons said the figures were disappointing and it was unclear how the NHS will catch up with the backlog from the busy winter.
As only 87.5% of patients were seen within 18 weeks, the Government’s 92% target has not been met since February 2016.
It said the data also shows NHS England and NHS Improvement are already missing their target of ensuring that by March 2019 the waiting list size does not exceed the level at March 2018 (3.84 million patients), with more than four million patients on the waiting list for the first time.
Vice president Ian Eardley said: “It is very worrying that there are now half a million patients waiting for planned hospital treatment.
“Disappointingly, and despite the efforts of frontline staff, NHS waiting lists have now ballooned to levels that we have not seen since 2008.
“These patients are people who have been diagnosed with a condition that requires hospital treatment by a consultant doctor and a high proportion of them will be for operations, such as a hip or knee replacement.
“We’re now in June and yet it remains unclear how the NHS plans to catch up with the planned surgery backlog caused by the winter pressures.
“If patients have to wait excessively long for surgery there is a risk their condition will deteriorate and the treatment will be less effective. It is also very distressing – and debilitating for someone who is living with a painful condition – to have to wait a long time for treatment.”
NHS England said 90.4% of patients – a record 1.95 million – were admitted, treated, transferred or discharged within four hours in May.
The previous highest number of patients seen in four hours in one month was 1.91 million in July 2013, which represented 96.7% of all patients at that time.
An NHS England spokesman said: “It’s good to see A&E performance improve again this month, and action taken by hospitals and councils to reduce delayed discharges and free up beds is now needed to help make further progress.”