Waiting list hits 5 million for first time ever
The latest NHS England performance statistics reveal the extreme pressure the NHS faces as it works to tackle the enormous backlog in routine hospital care caused by the pandemic.
Nearly 3,000 people have now been waiting more than two years for a procedure which the NHS constitution promises should be performed within 18 weeks, and nearly 400,000 have been waiting for over a year. The total number of people waiting for routine hospital care, 5.12 million, is now greater than at any time since records began in 2007.
Responding to the publication of the statistics, Tim Gardner, Senior Policy Fellow at the Health Foundation, said: "Waits of this magnitude are not acceptable to anyone and we know that the NHS and Government are working hard to find a solution. The NHS needs to increase levels of activity but this will be extremely difficult with significant workforce shortages, post-pandemic staff burnt-out and ongoing constraints on capacity due to COVID-19, including social distancing.
"The NHS urgently needs additional resources but importantly, local services also need the freedom and support to trial and evaluate innovative new approaches to tackling the backlog and share learning across the country. Making incremental improvements to business as usual, while important, will not be enough to address a challenge of this scale. "
Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “These figures are not just numbers on a spreadsheet, but real people in pain, distressed at not knowing when they will be able to receive the care they need. It’s positive that the number of people waiting more than a year for treatment has slightly fallen, but there are still 382,264 more people waiting more than a year than there were pre-pandemic. The current figure is a 389-fold increase on the 1,613 people who were waiting over a year in February 2020, which is not at the standard that doctors want to provide.
“For the first time ever, 5.12 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of April 2021, our strongest indicator yet that the immense backlog of care is dangerously close to crippling our health service if Government doesn’t give it the support it needs.
“Although COVID-19 hospital admissions remain low across England and this has freed up valuable time for staff to begin addressing the backlog; we are starting to see a resurgence in some areas. With the NHS at capacity, even small increases in COVID admissions could significantly undermine hospitals ability to tackle this backlog which could then about an even bigger build-up of care, further exhausting staff who are already on their knees after a devastating year of fighting the pandemic.
“The situation in emergency departments is also dire. After a decline in demand during the peak of the pandemic, staff are now facing the return of pre-COVID levels of A&E attendance; a total of 2.08 million attendances were recorded in May 2021, up from 1.26 million in May 2020. The impact of this is evident, with both four and 12-hour trolley waits increasing – by 18% for 4 hour and 33% for 12 hour, since last month.
“All doctors want to do is see and treat their patients, but we can’t do this effectively without Government honesty about the backlog and support in helping the NHS cautiously resume non-Covid care to allow staff time to rest and recover.
“Just this week, MPs warned that NHS and social care staff burnout has reached an ‘emergency’ level, alongside countless BMA surveys demonstrating that thousands of overworked doctors are considering leaving the health service because of a lack of respite from the pandemic – something that will only get worse as the backlog grows. We need to see immediate investment in the workforce to halt the exodus and to allow the NHS to cope with existing and future demand – including through staffing legislation mandating regular NHS workforce assessment in the forthcoming Health and Care Bill.
“Government must confront the fact that the NHS is in dire straits and act. Our health service has pulled us through a once-in-a-generation crisis, but is now facing another of equal magnitude without the same resilience as before. If this warning light continues to go unaddressed, we risk jeopardising the care of millions of patients.”