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Coronavirus puts more strain on NHS waiting lists

The number of people waiting longer than 18 weeks for hospital treatment in England is now almost 1.45 million. That’s the highest figure since December 2007. It’s also more than double the number in May 2019.

Data from NHS England shows 1,448,357 people had to wait more than 18 weeks to start hospital treatment in May this year. People face long waits for cancer treatment to start, while hundreds of thousands are waiting for scans. 

Records for May show that just 62.2% of people waiting to be seen got their appointment within 18 weeks. The target is 95%. Meanwhile the number of people waiting more than a year for hospital treatment in England jumped to 26,029 in May 2020. That’s up from 1,032 in May 2019 and the highest number for any calendar month since September 2009.

Missed cancer targets

Only 69.9% of people began cancer treatment within two months of GP referral. That’s the lowest percentage since records began in October 2009. And the number of urgent cancer referrals has almost halved in England compared to May 2019. Urgent breast cancer referrals showed an even bigger drop: down from 15,802 in May 2019 to 5,371 in May 2020. That’s a fall of 66%.

Other areas of the health service are also feeling the strain. More than half a million patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for key diagnostic tests in May 2020. This includes standard tests such as MRI scans and non-maternity ultrasound. In May 2019 that number was only 43,230.

The latest data also shows that the number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was down 82% in May, compared with a year ago.

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Coronavirus to blame

Experts blame coronavirus (Covid-19) for this drop. Dr Nick Scriven, former president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said:

Clearly NHS performance across the board continues to be hugely affected by Covid-19, though we must also remember performance has been poor for a lot longer than that and questions need to be answered as to how we ensure the sustainable future of the service.

We are very concerned about the growing crisis in accessing diagnostic tests, with the total number of patients waiting six weeks or more from referral for one of the 15 key tests at almost 571,500 – 58.5% of the total number of patients waiting – which is shocking given the target is 1%.”

An NHS spokesperson said:

Despite responding rapidly to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to ensure over 100,000 patients could receive hospital care, NHS staff also provided more than five million urgent tests, checks and treatment in a safe way during the peak of the virus.

The overall waiting list has fallen by more than half a million since the onset of Covid, but, as more patients come forward, local health services continue work to expand services safely.”

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said:

This is yet more worrying evidence of the impact Covid-19 has had on cancer patients and services.

While it’s encouraging that the number of urgent cancer referrals has started to recover since the steep decline in April, the latest figures for May are still worryingly low.

And we know from local figures that urgent referrals are not yet back to normal levels, well past the peak of the virus.

Months of delays have continued to add to the mounting cancer backlog, which will take considerable effort, time and money to clear.”

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