NHS waiting list hits record high as 5.6 million still waiting for treatment

Nathan Clarke's life is on hold while he waits for brain surgery to help with his epilepsy which causes him to suffer seizures every day, Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks has more

The number of people waiting for hospital treatment in England has reached an "eye-watering" new record high of more than 5 million.

According to NHS England's latest figures, 5.6 million people were still waiting to start treatment at the end of July, with 293,102 of those waiting more than 52 weeks.

Although the number of people waiting at least 52 weeks decreased from 304,803 in June, July's figures are more than three times higher than the same month the year before, which stood at 83,203 patients.

It marks the highest number of patients on the waiting list since records began in 2007 and includes those waiting for hip and knee replacements and cataract surgery.

But Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the situation facing the health service will get even worse before it improves.

"The waiting lists will go up before they go down again," he said, but he insisted a 1.25 percentage point increase to National Insurance announced this week will raise enough money to "tackle" the growing problem.

The latest figures come after health leaders this week called on the government to urgently provide extra funding to clear the mammoth NHS backlog caused by the pandemic.

The health secretary said he was warned that the NHS waiting list could reach 13 million without immediate action.

A closer look at waiting times at the end of July 2021:

  • 68.3% of patients waiting to start treatment were waiting up to 18 weeks - thus not meeting the 92% standard.

  • The number of Referral To Treatment (RTT) patients waiting to start treatment was 5.6 million. Of those, 293,102 were waiting more than 52 weeks.

  • For patients waiting to start treatment, the median waiting time was 10.9 weeks. The 92nd percentile waiting time was 43.8 weeks.

  • During July, 1,604,888 patients started a new RTT pathway. An RTT pathway is the length of time that a patient has waited from a doctor's referral to the start of their treatment, or if they have not yet started treatment, the length of time a patient has waited so far.

  • During the same month, 259,642 RTT patients started admitted treatment and 999,991 started non-admitted treatment.

The waiting room in a hospital Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA

Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at health charity The King’s Fund, warned that many of those on the waiting list are "often in pain" and on top of their symptoms, are "dealing with the uncertainty of when they will be treated".

He said: “Despite the best efforts of NHS staff, waiting lists for routine NHS care have swollen to levels last seen 15 years ago.

“All NHS services are affected, with primary care, hospital care and mental health services seeing the demand for care rise as the immediate threat of Covid-19 recedes," continued Mr Anandaciva.

“Even before Covid-19, waiting lists for treatment had substantially worsened.

“The significant investment the government has now promised is very welcome but will not lead to an increase the number of hospital beds or clinical staff overnight."

He agreed that Boris Johnson was right to warn the public that the waiting lists will worsen before they improve - but urged the government to "back the investment it has provided with a plan to ensure the NHS gets the staff it needs".

Earlier this week, the government announced an extra £5.4 billion budget boost for the NHS over the next six months - just half the amount health service bodies said is needed to tackle the backlog and continue to respond to the pandemic.

ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports on the new record high of more than five million on the waitlist

The latest data shows the total number of people admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England in July 2021 was 259,642 - up 82% from a year earlier (142,818).

However, this reflects lower-than-usual figures for July 2020, which were affected by the first wave of the pandemic. The equivalent figure for July 2019, a non-pandemic year, was 314,280.

NHS England said many more tests and treatments have been delivered this summer compared to last, while hospitals cared for thousands more patients with Covid.

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It said there were 3.9 million diagnostic tests and 2.6 million patients started consultant-led treatment in June and July, compared with 2.7 million tests and 1.6 million treatments over the same time last year.

This came as the number of Covid patients in hospital grew from under 800 at the start of June to more than 5,000 at the end of July.

There are now more than 6,300 Covid patients in hospital, compared with fewer than 600 this time last year.

NHS England also pointed to data showing that almost half a million people were checked for cancer in June and July - among the highest numbers on record.

  • More than 325,000 patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in July, the data shows.

  • A total of 325,229 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 July 2020 was 489,797, while pre-pandemic in July 2019 there were 37,206.

Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said even staff "do not know how many of those who held back from accessing care during the pandemic still need treatment" but urged them to come forward, including through NHS 111.

“Caring for 450,000 patients with the virus has inevitably had a knock-on effect on less urgent care and left a backlog but staff are working around the clock to make the best possible use of Government investment to treat as many people as possible," he added.

Tim Mitchell, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said the overall data showed 7,980 patients waiting more than two years for treatment.

The longest waits were for trauma and orthopaedic treatment such as hip and knee replacements, followed by general surgery such as gallbladder removals and hernia operations.

He said: “Today’s waiting times figures show the new funding for planned surgery is sorely needed.

“Behind these eye-watering statistics are patients waiting in pain for hip and knee replacements and for heart, brain and other operations.

“Without surgery, many would be left unable to work or carry out everyday activities, their quality of life greatly diminished".

Mr Mitchell also urged the government to back long-term investment in the NHS workforce in order to tackle the waiting list.