Almost 6 million people are waiting to have hospital treatment in England – a new record – the latest NHS monthly performance statistics showed today.
The number of patients on the waiting list for non-urgent surgery such as a hip or knee replacements or cataract operation has risen again, from 5.83m to 5.98m. The 5,975,216 people who were waiting in October is the highest number since records began in August 2007.
Labour seized on the figures as evidence of Conservative governments’ mishandling of the NHS.
“One in every 10 people in England are on NHS waiting lists today and the situation is set to get even worse, despite the Tories’ unfair tax rises on working people. Under the Tories we’re paying more and getting less,” said Wes Streeting, the party’s new shadow health and social care secretary.
“The NHS went into the pandemic with waiting lists at record levels, staff shortages of 100,000 in the health service and 112,000 social care vacancies thanks to a decade of Conservative mismanagement.”
Under the NHS constitution 92% of patients should be treated in hospital within 18 weeks of being referred by their GP. But in October 2,053,268 patients – more than a third (34.4%) of all those waiting – had had their treatment delayed for longer than that. It was only the second time that more than 2 million people had been forced to wait more than 18 weeks.
In addition, the number of people forced to wait more than 52 weeks to start treatment stood at 312,665, up from 300,566 in September – and nearly double the number who were waiting a year earlier, in October 2020, which was 167,067.
Hospital bosses and NHS staff are bracing themselves for the next few months being particularly challenging. Even before the new Omicron variant of coronavirus emerged two weeks ago the health secretary, Sajid Javid, the NHS England boss, Amanda Pritchard, and Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, had all acknowledged that this winter could put the health service under its most intense strain ever.
The Society for Acute Medicine, which represents hospital doctors who treat non-surgical patients, said the NHS is under much greater pressure than a year ago.
“The current feeling in acute medicine is just how busy it is even without large numbers of people suffering from Covid and there is immense pressure across the whole NHS frontline,” said Dr Tim Cooksley, the society’s president.
“Compared to this time last year it feels far worse and the data shows just how tough things are. The workforce is now struggling not only with the relentless workload but also the uncertainty we all feel.”
A relentless rise in pressure on all types of NHS care has led organisations representing doctors, nurses and hospital bosses in recent weeks to warn that patient safety is at risk.
Last month bosses of the 10 regional NHS ambulance services in England estimated in a report that patients across the UK were dying because so many ambulances were tied up outside hospitals for long because A&E staff did not have the capacity to admit them.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents emergency care doctors, also warned that more than 6,000 patients a year were dying because A&E units were becoming so crowded.
NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care were due to publish last week their “elective recovery plan”, setting out details of how hospitals would tackle the backlog. But it was delayed after Omicron emerged two weeks ago.
The plan, which is expected to come out before Christmas, is likely to recommend that patients who have had treatment in hospital receive fewer follow-up appointments in order to free up consultants to do more surgery, and an expansion of Covid-free “surgical hubs”, as well as other measures.
More people seeking cancer care are facing a delay, the latest figures also show. The number of patients who waited more than two weeks to see a cancer specialist after being urgently referred by a GP grew to 42,430 in October, the highest figure in 12 years. The proportion of patients seen within the standard fell to a low of 81.3% against the 93% target).
In addition, just 67.8% of cancer patients – the smallest proportion ever – underwent their first treatment within two months of urgent referral, well below the 85% target.
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, highlighted that ambulance services are struggling to respond to the number of 999 calls they are receiving and that the number of people forced to wait at least 12 hours in an A&E to get a bed had shot up to 10.646 – a new record.
NHS England said that the service was the busiest it had ever been last month with a record number of 999 calls and more than 2 million people seen at A&E or an urgent treatment centre.