Almost a quarter of a million people waiting more than a year for NHS treatment as Covid impact continues

  • Video report by ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan

The number of people waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment in England is at its highest level since 2008, new figures show.

Data from NHS England shows 224,205 people in December had been waiting more than a year – the highest number for any calendar month since April 2008 - as the impact of Covid on the health system continues to affect vital treatment.

One year earlier, in December 2019, the figure was just 1,467.

The figures also show that a total of 4.52 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of December – the highest number since records began in August 2007.

But NHS England said cancer services have continued to recover, with 25,199 people starting treatment for the disease in December, 555 more than in the same month the previous year.

The total number of people admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was also down a quarter in December compared with a year earlier.

Some 190,604 patients were admitted for treatment during the month, down from 253,318 in December 2019.

The year-on-year decrease recorded in November was 27%, while in October the drop was also 27%.

The pressures of Covid on the NHS mean that Ellen Wallis cannot have the cancer surgery she needs to remove part of her liver.

The mother-of-two from Norwich was diagnosed with colon cancer in September and this was treated successfully, however, when the second lockdown hit a metastatic tumour was discovered in her liver, but a shortage of ICU beds mean she cannot have the surgery.

Ms Wallis is on chemotherapy to stop the cancer from growing or spreading, but described the situation as "frustrating" as the "option of me being cancer free is so unbelievably close", but current NHS pressures mean she is yet to be given a date for surgery.

A&E attendances at hospitals in England continue to be below levels of a year ago as people have stayed away from hospitals due to fears about coronavirus.

A total of 1.3 million attendances were recorded in January, down 38% from 2.1 million in January the previous year.

ITV News' statistician Jen Rogers took a look at the figures to see what they show:

  • Between October and December 2020, 87.47% of people were seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral for suspected cancer. This was down from 91.49% on the year before.

  • The worst performing trusts were:

- University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust with 46.16% seen within two weeks, compared to 83.09% for the same period in the previous year.

- The Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust with 46.54% seen within two weeks, compared to 83.6% for the same period in the previous year.

- North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust with 50.08% seen within two weeks, compared to 86.45% for the same period in the previous year.

The year-on-year drop in A&E attendances of 38% in January compares with falls of 32% in December, 31% in November and 26% in October.

Tim Mitchell, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “Covid-19 continues to take an enormous toll on hundreds of thousands of people across the country left waiting for an operation.

“The number of people waiting over a year for their treatment is now 150 times higher than in 2019.

Cancer treatments have been delayed because of the strain of Covid. Credit: PA

“Many are waiting ‘in limbo’, reliant on painkillers, and unable to get on with day-to-day family life or work.

“These figures show the impact on the NHS of lifting the November national lockdown.

“By Christmas, some surgeons were facing the awful job of calling up patients waiting for cancer operations, to tell them they weren’t sure when they would have a bed or the staff in place to operate.”

The data also showed that 350,000 patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in December.

A total of 345,664 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 December 2019 was 41,906.

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

Some 200,940 urgent cancer referrals were also made by GPs in England in December, up from 187,811 in December 2019 – a rise of 7%.

This compares with a year-on-year rise of 2% in November and a fall of 8% in October.

NHS England said almost one third of all patients who have needed hospital treatment for Covid since the pandemic began were admitted last month, and praised hard-working staff for keeping non-Covid services running.

The organisation said more than six million planned treatments were carried out in 2020 despite the pandemic, while hospitals carried out more than two cancer procedures for every patient they treated for the virus.

Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “While the world’s attention has rightly been on Covid, NHS staff have worked extremely hard to provide essential services for those patients who need them, including 280,000 treatments for cancer patients (in 2020) along with millions of routine operations.

“Even in January, when hospitals admitted almost a third of all the Covid patients they have treated during the pandemic, they were treating twice as many patients with other conditions as they did for those with the virus over the month.

“But the NHS remains under significant pressure so it is vital that everyone continues to do all they can to stop the spread of the virus by staying at home and following the expert ‘hands, face, space’ guidance.”