NHS waiting list recovery ‘could take years’ – report

A view of a hospital Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

NHS waiting lists will not recover to pre-pandemic levels over the next four years, according to analysis.

Despite recent reductions in the waiting list in England, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that it is “unlikely that waiting lists will reach pre-pandemic levels” by December 2027 – even under a “best-case scenario”.

The latest figures show that the waiting list for routine hospital treatment in England has fallen for the third month in a row.

An estimated 7.6 million treatments were waiting to be carried out at the end of December, relating to 6.37 million patients, down slightly from 7.61 million treatments and 6.39 million patients at the end of November, according to NHS England figures.

Cutting NHS waiting lists is one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s top priorities.

The new IFS analysis highlights how the NHS waiting list was already growing before the pandemic, but it rose “rapidly” during the crisis.

The IFS report suggests a range of scenarios about how the waiting list could look in December 2024.

But the authors point out that even under this best-case scenario, the waiting list will still be higher than it was before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The waiting list was 4.6 million in December 2019.

Under the IFS’s “central scenario”, waiting lists would start to fall “consistently but slowly” from the middle of 2024 but it would still stand at 6.5 million in December 2027.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

“We therefore assess it to be very unlikely that waiting lists will reach pre-pandemic levels over the next four years,” the authors wrote.

IFS research economist Max Warner, and author of the report, said: “The next government may well inherit a falling elective NHS waiting list in England. But even with a trend pointing in the right direction, waiting lists will still be far higher than they have been – and long waiting times are unlikely to go away any time soon.”

Mark Franks, from the Nuffield Foundation, which part-funded the report, added: “We have witnessed over a decade of increasing NHS waiting lists, influenced by factors such as a growing and ageing population.

“More recently, the pandemic has exacerbated this issue by hindering the NHS’s capacity to provide healthcare services.

“If our public health services are to recover, the next government needs a credible and sustainable plan for tackling the NHS’s capacity, funding and productivity issues.”

Commenting on the report, Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive at NHS Providers, said that efforts to bring down the waiting list are being “thwarted” by “squeezed funding in the NHS, the fallout of the pandemic, severe workforce shortages and strikes”.

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokeswoman Sarah Olney said: “This damning analysis reveals the lasting damage done to the NHS by years of neglect under this Conservative government.

“Rishi Sunak’s failure to meet his pledge to bring waiting lists down has left millions of people in limbo, waiting in pain for the treatment they need.

“Conservative ministers need to take responsibility for fixing this mess, starting by cancelling their disastrously short-sighted real-terms cuts to NHS spending.

“We cannot get the economy firing on all cylinders again without helping people off NHS waiting lists and back into work.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting added: “This report makes clear that Rishi Sunak has failed to cut waiting lists, which will be higher by the next election than when he became Prime Minister.

“There is no prospect of patients being seen on time if the Conservatives are given another five years. The longer we give the Conservatives, the longer patients wait.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We recognise the challenges the NHS faces, and we are taking the long-term decisions needed to make our health service faster, simpler and fairer, cutting waiting lists and ensuring people get the care they need.

“Overall NHS waiting lists have decreased for three months in a row, despite winter pressures and industrial action, and we’ve delivered our commitment to provide an extra 50 million GP appointments months ahead of schedule, while the recent rollout of Pharmacy First will help to free up 10 million GP appointments per year.

“We are putting record levels of investment into the NHS, and we have commissioned the first ever NHS Long Term Workforce Plan to train, and retain, the staff our healthcare system will need in the decades to come.”