More than 50,000 patients have now waited more than a year for NHS treatment, according to new waiting time statistics revealing the scale of the impact of coronavirus on the health service.
The figure up to the end of June is a huge rise from the 1,613 patients waiting more than a year in February this year.
Earlier this month, leaked data from hospitals in London alone showed that more than 20,000 patients were waiting longer than a year in July.
New data from NHS England also reveals hospitals are struggling to meet the gold standard target of starting treatment within 18 weeks for 92 per cent of patients. For the latest period to the end of June, just over half of patients started treatment within 18 weeks.
This is the worst performance since 2012.
Since March, hospitals were forced to cancel thousands of routine operations and appointments as a result of the coronavirus crisis which exacerbated existing problems for the NHS in meeting its key waiting times.
The 18 week target was last met in February 2016.
Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said: “Today’s data shows the NHS is still nowhere close to business as usual following the first outbreak of Covid-19. At the end of June, nearly half of all people waiting for planned hospital care had waited beyond the 18-week standard – the worst ever performance since the standard was set in 2012.
“The number of people being referred to specialist care and starting treatment, including for suspected cancer, has increased from last month but remains well below normal levels.”
He added: “With so many going without treatment or experiencing long waits, there is a risk that the health of people with serious conditions will deteriorate and mean the NHS has to deal with more patients needing care urgently.
“While longer waits for treatment are now inevitable, patients with less urgent conditions must not be left without advice and support while they wait.”
The new statistics show the total size of the NHS waiting list has actually shrunk to 3.9 milllion as fewer patients have been referred for treatment by GPs. The waiting list is expected to rise suddenly in coming months as delayed patients are added to the system.
For patients waiting to start treatment at the end of June, the median waiting time was 17.6 weeks, with 92 per cent of patients seen within 37 weeks of waiting.
During June 94,354 patients were admitted to hospitals for treatment while 662,000 patients were treated without a stay in hospital.
Mid and South Essex Foundation Trust had more than 3,300 patients waiting longer than a year, the worst hospital performance in the country.
Dorset Healthcare University Trust managed to treat only 25 per cent of its patients within 18 weeks.
For diagnostic tests, a total of 540,600 patients were waiting six weeks or more for one of 15 key tests in June – almost half the total number of patients waiting.
Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “All signals are pointing towards a growing and alarming backlog of clinical need with patients waiting longer for operations and diagnostic tests. Waiting times were dire before the pandemic and we are reaching some worrying new lows. Especially concerning is that the low number of people starting cancer treatment after attending national screening programmes, which indicates that people also aren’t able to access screening or quick treatment. This is incredibly concerning when we know that early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to saving lives.
“We can’t ignore the fact that there are undoubtedly patients not getting help who may desperately need it. We supported the lockdown to suppress this horrific virus but the far-reaching consequences for wider health outcomes must not be ignored.”
Experts have warned the NHS could see a waiting list of 10 million people later this year with hospitals unable to mee the increased demand because of restrictions caused by Covid-19. Some hospitals have been forced to run at half their normal capacity in order to maintain social distancing and protect staff and patients from infection.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has told hospitals to get back to “near normal” levels of activity as soon as possible with hospitals drawing up recovery plans this month.
Liam O’Toole, chief executive of the charity Versus Arthritis said: “The figures reveal the stark reality for millions of people with arthritis who have borne the brunt of disruption to treatment during the pandemic. Many are still without a surgery date and continuing to wait in ongoing pain and uncertainty.
“Waiting times before the pandemic were bad enough – though we can see more figures for June show little improvement.
“Urgent action is needed to prioritise joint replacement surgery as part of NHS recovery planning. Without this, people with arthritis will be left feeling that their pain is being ignored.”
NHS England said since March the NHS has delivered 4.2 million diagnostic tests with 3 million routine appointments and treatments carried since March despite the coronavirus.
It said local areas were now looking at setting up new diagnostic hubs to ensure suspected cancer patients can be seen as quickly as possible. The Exeter Nightingale hospital has been re-purposed for non-Covid CT scanning between 8am and 8pm seven days a week.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Hospitals have successfully and quickly cared for patients urgently referred by their GP, with over 92 per cent of urgent cancer referrals being investigated within two weeks, and 85,000 people starting treatment for cancer since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“More people are now coming forward for a cancer check, with 45,000 extra referrals this month, and the key point remains that anyone who is concerned about a possible symptom should contact their GP and get a check-up.”