Record high of 5.45 million people now waiting for routine NHS treatment

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The number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment has risen to a record high, as the NHS continues to face pressure from the backlog in care due to the pandemic.

Some 5.45 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of June, according to the latest figures from NHS England – the highest number since records began in August 2007.

But in signs of progress, the number of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for care has dropped by almost 25,000.

The number having to wait more than a year to start treatment was 304,803 in June – down from 336,733 the previous month but around six times the number from a year earlier.

(PA Graphics)

The equivalent figure for June 2019, a non-pandemic year, was 194,047.

Meanwhile when it comes to key diagnostic tests including MRI scans and gastroscopies, figures show 306,117 patients were waiting for one of 15 such standard tests for more than six weeks.

The equivalent number waiting for more than six weeks in June last year was 539,433.

NHS England said the health service is experiencing one of its busiest summers ever.

A&E attendances at hospitals in England last month were 36% higher than a year ago, but this is a reflection of lower than usual numbers for July 2020, which were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A total of 2.16 million attendances were recorded last month, up from 1.59 million in July 2020.

Emergency admissions to A&E departments at hospitals in England rose from 473,226 in July 2020 to 532,677 in July this year.

Meanwhile NHS England said the ambulance service answered its highest number of 999 calls ever last month – more than one million – and had its highest ever number of callouts for life-threatening conditions.

There were 82,000 such calls last month, 8,000 more than the previous record high in June, NHS England said.

Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, said: “NHS staff have made effective use of the additional resources made available to us to recover services which were inevitably disrupted during the pandemic, and we are continuing to tackle the Covid backlog.

Ahead of figures being published, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said some health trusts are busier than ever amid a multitude of pressures on the service.

He said despite lower levels of Covid hospital admissions recently than had been predicted, there is still a strain on the NHS.

He told BBC Breakfast: “What we can’t do is magic treatment out of thin air.

“What we need is money, but we also need to invest that money in a larger workforce, and that is fundamental to getting through this backlog.

“We simply won’t get through it quick enough unless that funding and investment is there and that is the challenge that the Chancellor and the Prime Minster have to answer, probably over the next three or four/five weeks.”

Modelling from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) at the weekend warned the NHS waiting list in England could rise to 14 million by autumn next year and keep increasing if millions of patients who did not receive care during the pandemic return to the health service for medical attention.

Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said there is still pressure in hospitals due to infection control, Covid patients and staff shortages, and he called for “significant investment in a more sustainable system, adapted to a country where the virus remains endemic” to avoid ever-growing waiting lists.

He said: “This summer, the pressure on emergency departments hasn’t let up. A volatile mix of pressures is hindering the surgical recovery.”

Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “We are pretty much running on empty after 20 months of unrelenting pressure culminating now in what is really unprecedented demand at this time of year.

“Staff are stressed and exhausted, seeing very little light at the end of any proverbial tunnel as we approach a winter that is already being predicted to be severely challenging.”

Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation charity, said the latest data “highlights the difficult juggling act the NHS faces in meeting emergency pressures, restoring services and addressing the backlog of care while Covid-19 cases still remain high”.

He added: “The Government and NHS leaders now need to be clear and realistic with the public about how they intend to get the NHS back to full strength, including dealing with the backlog of care.

“There will need to be significant investment at the upcoming spending review if we are to see improvement on waiting lists and addressing the staff shortages which are holding back progress.”

Alexandra Callaghan, policy manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the statistics “confirm that there are still thousands of people missing treatment for cancer since the start of the pandemic”, and she urged the Government to provide the “long-term investment needed to grow and support the hard-working cancer care workforce so it can tackle the challenges that lie ahead”.

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