England’s NHS waiting list tops 5 million for first time

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The number of people in England waiting to start NHS hospital treatment has risen above five million for the first time, new figures show.

Data from NHS England shows that 5.12 million people were on the waiting list at the end of April – the highest number since records began in August 2007.

The figures, published on Thursday, also show that the number of people having waited more than a year to start hospital treatment stood at 385,490 in April.

This is down from 436,127 in the previous month, but around 35 times the number waiting a year earlier, in April 2020, which was 11,042.

Meanwhile, A&E attendances in England last month were 65% higher than a year ago, NHS England said – although this is a reflection of lower-than-usual numbers for May 2020, which were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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A total of 2.08 million attendances were recorded in May, up from 1.26 million in May 2020.

The equivalent figure for May 2019, a non-pandemic year, was 2.17 million.

Dr Nick Scriven, past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said:

The warning signs about where the NHS was heading were glaringly visible a number of years ago and what we are seeing in recent monthly data is the result of a lack of preparedness for the inevitable.

With acute and emergency care under increasing strain and bed occupancy well over safe levels at more than 90% – yet far less impact from Covid at this point – we have major problems.

We are in a dire state when it comes to record numbers of people waiting for treatment, but we must also remember the four-hour emergency access target has not been met for years now with little to no change in approach.

The data also shows the number of people admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England in April was 223,780 – more than five times the number a year earlier at 41,121, although again this reflects lower-than-usual figures for April 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic.

The equivalent figure for April 2019, a non-pandemic year, was 280,209.

Emergency admissions to A&E departments in England also showed a rise last month, up from 398,406 in May 2020 to 543,754.

The equivalent figure for May 2019, a non-pandemic year, was 547,382.

The NHS England figures also show that a total of 209,452 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in April, more than double the number in April 2020, which was 80,031.

The equivalent figure for April 2019 was 199,217.

Urgent referrals where breast cancer symptoms were present – though not initially suspected – were up from 3,866 in April to 14,259 in April 2021.

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