More than 5million people in England are now waiting for NHS hospital treatment – the highest number ever recorded since records began in 2007.
The number now stands at 5.12million and has risen consistently since the Covid pandemic began.
Hospitals turned their attention to focus on treating coronavirus patients amid both the first and second waves, cancelling thousands of non-urgent operations and fueling a huge backlog.
Now hospital chiefs have warned that the Indian variant’s rapid spread could exacerbate the problem with any slight uptick in hospital admissions potentially jeopardising non-Covid care.
NHS data also showed that 2,600 people have been waiting for more than two years for routine operations, such as hip and knee replacements, according to NHS England statistics published today.
The number of people on the NHS waiting lists hit its highest-ever number of 5.12million
Of these 2,600, over 500 are waiting for orthopaedic treatment, 312 are still to receive general surgery, such as gallbladder and hernia operations, and 246 are waiting for ear, notes or throat care.
Meanwhile, the number of people waiting over a year for care reached 385,940 in April.
This marks a drop of over 50,000 from the 436,127 waiting more than 52 weeks in March, but is still much higher than the 1,613 who were forced to wait that long before the first wave hit.
Figures show that 223,780 people were admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in April, compared to 41,121 patients in the same month last year.
Though the latter figure was impacted by less people going to hospital at the start of the pandemic, over concerns about putting pressure on the NHS and catching Covid.
Over 2million people attended A&E in May, the highest number since January 2020.
The number A&E visits dropped to 916,575 in April 2020, marking the lowest number since records began in 2010, as people stayed at home in the first lockdown.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the highest number of people attending the emergency department each month did not rise above 1.8million.
The NHS data also shows that GPs made 209,452 urgent cancer referrals in April, more than double the previous years number of 80,031.
Urgent referrals where breast cancer symptoms were present – though not initially suspected – were up from 3,866 in April 2020 to 14,259 in April 2021.
Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said it is ‘encouraging’ that the data shows routine operations, cancer and mental health care have ‘rebounded sharply’ following the ‘extensive disruption’ caused by the pandemic.
He said the NHS is ‘committed to restoring services to pre-pandemic levels’ .
Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said the waiting times reinforce the party’s call for an NHS rescue plan.
‘The reality is years of Tory underfunding and cuts across health care left our NHS weakened and exposed entering the pandemic with patients now left waiting even longer in pain and anxiety for treatment,’ he said.
Chris Hopson, chief of NHS Providers, warned yesterday that if there is a surge in the number of people infected with Covid once the latest lockdown restrictions are lifted, other care services could suffer.
He told Times Radio that ‘trade-offs’ will need to be made, as further lifting restrictions will lead to higher levels of hospitalisation and morality.
Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said health service staff have achieved a ‘phenomenal amount’ working throughout the pandemic and simultaneously rolling out the vaccine programmer.
But pressure on the NHS is ‘once again growing’, as over 1,000 people are now in hospital, he said.
The prime minister ‘now faces a very big decision’, because no matter the size of a third wave, it will impact the services the NHS can provide, Mr Mortimer said.
‘If the data gives rise to any doubt, health leaders would urge him to take decisive action and delay the final lifting of lockdown restrictions,’ he added.
Dr Nick Scriven, former president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said ‘warning signs about where the NHS was heading were glaringly visible a number of years ago and what we are seeing in recent monthly data is the result of a lack of preparedness for the inevitable’.
The country is in ‘a dire state’ for treatment waiting times and the four-hour target for seeing A&E patients ‘has not been met for years now with little to no change in approach’, he said.
The Royal College of Surgeons of England have urged the government to make waiting times their ‘top priority’.
Its vice president Tim Mitchell said the ‘really long waits’ of one or two years is ‘particularly troubling’.
These people are waiting for ‘life-changing surgery’ that can help get them back to work, relieve pain and allow them to ‘enjoy a decent quality of life again’, he said.
Many hospitals have returned to pre-pandemic levels of surgery, as exhausted staff work evenings and Saturdays to catch up, Mr Mitchell said.
He said tackling the ‘gigantic backlog’ will require new investment in staff and the government should create ‘specialist surgical hubs in every region’ and a five-year funding plan.
‘There is no quick fix, but we must aim to get back to delivering timely surgery,’ Mr Mitchell added.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said the ‘monumental delays’ have likely contributed to the thousands of extra heart disease and stroke deaths in England during the pandemic.
Tracey Loftis, head of policy and public affairs at Versus Arthritis, said people with arthritis are ‘bearing the brunt’ of the crisis as they wait for joint replacement surgery.
‘It is critical that people with arthritis are not left struggling in pain with their lives put on hold. As longer waits lead to more severe joint damage and reduce the chance of future operations being successful, this issue becomes even more unacceptable,’ she said.
Meanwhile, a review of NHS data by consultancy firm Lane Clark & Peacock found that there are 25 times more people in certain parts of the country that have waited over a year for NHS treatment, compared to other areas.
Castle Point and Rochford in Essex had the highest proportion of people waiting over 52 weeks for care, with 573 people per 100,000.
But in south-west London, there was just 24 per 100,000.
Behind Castle Point and Rochford, Southend, Blackpool, Waltham Forest and Norfolk had the next highest proportion of people waiting longer than a year, ranging from 461 to 419 per 100,000.
The firm found that people facing the longest waits were waiting for orthopedic treatment, such as hip and knee replacements.
Many of these types of operations were postponed during the pandemic, as hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid patients, causing waiting lists to spiral.