Almost 1.2m people waiting at least six months for vital NHS services in England | NHS


Almost 1.2 million people in England are waiting more than six months for essential NHS services such as brain surgery and eye treatment because of the Covid backlog, analysis shows.

The May 2021 figure is almost five times that recorded in the same period in 2019 , before the pandemic hit, and also includes patients requiring gynaecological services.

Senior doctors said such long delays were causing patients to be left in pain, while experts said the full impact of the pandemic may not yet be known.

The deputy director of research of the Nuffield Trust, Dr Sarah Scobie, said: “We haven’t yet seen the peak of pent-up demand or the full impact of the multiple waves of this pandemic. Despite staff working flat out, overturning a backlog of this scale will take years. This will leave many people struggling with the day-to-day challenges of managing health conditions while waiting for essential treatment, risking storing up more urgent care needs for the near future.”

Rachel Power, the chief executive of the Patients Association, warned: “The waiting list figures are going one way only – up. And they won’t come down until the NHS can deliver activity faster than patients are presenting with new need.

“We went into the health emergency with rising waiting lists and now the NHS needs more resources – money and staff – and strong leadership to bring this backlog down,” she said.

Though the vast majority of patients are supposed to be seen within 18 weeks, six-month waiting lists have doubled for ear, nose and throat services and gastroenterology services when compared to the same period in 2020.

The number of patients waiting for gynaecological services stood at 15,647 in May 2019, rising to 48,168 in May 2020 before reaching 87,628 in the same period this year.

Dr Edward Morris, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said the college was very concerned that women were having to wait far too long to be diagnosed.

“The current backlog we are facing in gynaecology is made up of people needing clinically urgent treatment, so many women are being left in pain with these benign conditions.”

The figures for May 2021 revealed 212,770 patients had waited for more than six months for trauma and orthopaedic services. A further 130,224 waited for more than six months for ophthalmology services.

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists said it was likely that the majority of patients requiring eye treatments were for cataract surgery, who were not classified as high risk but who may be unable to lead an independent lifestyle as a result.

“Surgical and diagnostic capacity needs to increase rapidly to make a significant impact on the backlog caused by the Covid 19 pandemic,” said the college’s president, Prof Bernie Chang.

In May, more than 336,000 patients were waiting for treatments for at least a year, with almost 21,000 in Birmingham university hospital alone.

The hospital also recorded the longest median wait time, with patients waiting an average of 18 weeks, while some patients were waiting even longer for certain treatments.

There is a six-month median wait for those requiring ear, nose and throat and urology services as well as oral surgery.

The backlog facing the Birmingham trust reflects the continuing impact on hospitals struck hardest by the pandemic. A spokesperson said its staff had prioritised emergency and the most urgent cancer care for its patients while treating more than 15,000 Covid patients, “more than any other hospital trust in the country”.

“Despite the impact of Covid, we continue to work hard and at pace with our partners across Birmingham and Solihull to increase the number of operations carried out through additional theatres and ward capacity across our sites and launching a significant recruitment drive.”

A further four trusts – Buckinghamshire healthcare, Worcestershire acute hospitals, university hospitals of Leicester and the Royal Free London – recorded median wait times of close to 17 weeks.

This compares with waits of six weeks or less in Barnsley hospital, Southport and Ormskirk hospital and South Tyneside and Sunderland trusts, the lowest times recorded among NHS England’s acute trusts.

Paul Brennan, the chief operating officer and deputy chief executive of Worcestershire acute hospitals NHS trust, said its staff were working tirelessly to continue to prioritise those needing urgent care and were increasing the number of operations to “safely restore services and ensure patients receive care in as timely a way as possible”.

A spokesperson for Buckinghamshire said as well as treating almost 2,000 Covid patients and the same number of cancer patients, staff were continuing to see as many non-urgent patients as possible, with community teams treating the most vulnerable in their homes.

Certain treatments at some trusts had far higher waiting times. The longest waits were for oral surgery at the Royal Free London trust, with a median wait of 69 weeks and 115 people waiting more than a year.

A spokesperson for the Royal Free said oral surgery waiting times had been particularly impacted by Covid as such procedures cause airborne particles: “Due to the rigorous infection control measures required to ensure patients and staff are safe, we cannot see patients as quickly as we did before the pandemic.”

This position was reflected by a spokesman for Dorset county hospital.

Waiting times for nose and throat services at Oxford university hospitals trust were running at 65 weeks, with 1,234 people waiting more than a year for treatment. A spokesperson said patients waiting for surgery would be prioritised based on clinical need and urged anyone requiring treatment to come forward.

The findings follow a series of data releases from the service showing unprecedented waiting lists, which exceeded 5 million for the first time in April, rising to 5.3 million in May.

The median wait time for patients on the list has fallen, however, from a high of 19.6 weeks in July last year as the service grappled with a surge in Covid patients, to 10.8 weeks in May, the last month for which data is available.

The figures come just before NHS England releases its latest monthly statistics on waiting times for treatments including A&E care, surgery and cancer care, which officials believe will be grim reading.

An NHS spokesperson said: “Despite the significant disruption caused by the pandemic, with staff treating 410,000 seriously ill Covid patients and launching the biggest and fastest vaccination programme in our history, NHS services continued to be available for patients who needed them, and are now making good use of the £1bn in additional funding for elective recovery.

“The number of routine treatments and operations performed by NHS staff is increasing, with cancer and mental health services back at pre-pandemic levels, and so we continue to urge anyone who needs the NHS to come forward so we can help you.”



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