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NHS Waiting Lists Reach Highest Ever Levels

Kate Byng-Hall reports as the coronavirus pandemic causes NHS waiting lists to reach a devastating high.

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The National Health Service’s waiting list for medical treatment in England has hit 5.3 million patients – the highest number since records began in 2007. The latest figure has exacerbated fears that the list could reach a huge 7 million patients by the end of the year.

Experts warn the “unprecedented” backlog – which has been caused largely by the coronavirus pandemic – could have a detrimental impact on both the waiting patients and the Service itself. The greatest concern is currently held for patients who are waiting for cancer treatment, heart operations, hip and knee replacements and cataract-removal surgeries, as all these procedures can be significantly life-improving or life-saving.

Another Epidemic

The extent of the NHS delays caused by Covid-19 cannot be understated. By the end of March 2021, more than 436,000 patients had been waiting for over 52 weeks to receive treatment, compared with 387,000 in February and just 3,097 back in March 2020. As of June 2021, 2,722 patients had been waiting for treatment for over two years.

The numbers are rising rapidly, with more and more people every day being told they may not be eligible for treatment for months. This unprecedented problem for the NHS is set to continually worsen, with healthcare leaders saying there is an “immense task ahead” to provide everyone with the care they need.

“Waits of this magnitude are not acceptable to anyone and we know that the NHS and government are working hard to find a solution.” – Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation thinktank

Macmillan Cancer Support has highlighted how many cancer diagnoses may have been missed due to lockdowns, saying 300,000 fewer patients than usual have seen a specialist for suspected cancer since the pandemic began, and 35,000 fewer have started treatment for the disease. They project that the NHS would have to work at 110% of pre-pandemic levels for 18 months to pick up the missing diagnoses.

A Systemic Problem

According to the NHS constitution, 92% of patients should be treated within 18 weeks, but this target has not been sustained since 2016, indicating a more deep-rooted issue in the service. The NHS has struggled with underfunding and understaffing for years now, and the coronavirus pandemic has only aggravated these existing problems.

“The reality is years of Tory underfunding and cuts across healthcare left our NHS weakened and exposed entering the pandemic, with patients now left waiting even longer in pain and anxiety for treatment.” – Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary

Despite this, the Service has begun to “bounce back” slightly since lockdowns have ended and vaccination has increased, partly contributed to by a £1 billion government investment funding extra operations. More than 230,000 patients received cancer checks in March 2021 alone, mental health treatment has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and hospitals in England are now performing surgeries at a rate of 90% compared to pre-pandemic rates.

Nevertheless, there is a massive hill to climb to ensure that everyone in England is able to access the treatment and care they need within an acceptable timeframe. This will not happen before Covid-19 dies down even further, but attitudes also need to change within government to recognise how invaluable the National Health Service and its employees are for our country.


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