Numbers waiting 18 weeks for hospital treatment at highest level on record

Aine Fox and Joe Gammie, PA
·5 min read

The number of people waiting longer than 18 weeks for routine hospital treatment in England is at the highest level since records began.

New figures show numbers rose to more than 1.85 million in June, topping the 1.79 million recorded in August 2007.

Data from NHS England also showed urgent cancer referrals dropped by a fifth on the same month last year, rising to 43% for breast cancer.

A total of 153,134 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in June, down from 194,047 in June last year – a drop of 21%.

Urgent breast cancer referrals decreased from 14,885 to 8,495.

The figures are “worryingly low” and suggest “an alarming backlog of undiagnosed cancer” as well as a growing number of people yet to start treatment, warned Sara Bainbridge, head of policy and influence at Macmillan Cancer Support.

She said: “This could directly impact on many of these people’s chances of survival.

“To ensure services are able to catch up we need the Government to deliver the recovery plan promised and continue to address the scale of the challenge by securing more staffing and resources.”

She urged people with cancer symptoms to contact their GP “to limit the potentially detrimental, long-term impacts of delays in diagnosis”.

The monthly data, published on Thursday, showed the number of people waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment rose to 50,536, up from 1,089 in June last year, and the highest number for any calendar month since February 2009.

Just 52% of people waiting for routine treatment had been waiting less than 18 weeks against a target of 92%.

The number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was down 67% compared with a year ago.

A total of 94,354 patients were admitted during the month, down from 289,203 for the same time last year.

A small number of trusts did not submit data or the information was incomplete, but NHS England said that factoring in estimates based on the latest data submitted for each missing trust, the total number of patients waiting to start treatment at the end of June may have been four million.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England’s president Professor Neil Mortensen said that new data showed that coronavirus had taken a “wrecking ball” to waiting time targets.

He added: “By law 92% of patients are supposed to be seen within 18 weeks, but today’s figures show the worst ever performance on record, with only half of patients getting treatment within this legal timeframe.

“In June most planned surgery was suspended while the country rallied to flatten the first peak of coronavirus, so these record waits are understandable.

“Nevertheless, each of these numbers represents another patient waiting in need, potentially in pain, for hospital treatment.

“Long waits have a knock-on effect on patients’ families, their jobs and the wider economy. It is a real crisis.”

Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “These are worrying times for the NHS given the threat of a second wave of Covid-19 in addition to all of the other pre-existing issues such as bed capacity, staffing, funding and social care provision.

“Performance remains poor and concerning and, with what we know will be a challenging winter ahead, it will take more than a token cash injection announced by the Prime Minister this week to make up for years of neglect.”

Earlier this week Boris Johnson announced that NHS trusts across England will receive £300 million to upgrade facilities ahead of the winter amid fears of a second wave of coronavirus.

The Prime Minister said the additional cash would enable hospitals to maintain essential services and reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection during the coming months.

The funding comes from a £1.5 billion capital building allocation for the NHS set out by Mr Johnson in June.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson (Lucy Young/Evening Standard/PA)

A&E attendances at hospitals in England were down 30% last month compared with a year ago, with NHS England saying the “significantly lower” attendance was “likely to be a result of the Covid-19 response”, suggesting people are staying away from emergency departments because of coronavirus.

A total of almost 1.6 million attendances were recorded in July, down from around 2.3 million in the same month last year.

Emergency admissions, the majority of which were to A&E departments at hospitals, in England were down 15% from 554,069 in July 2019 to 472,646.

The June figures show more than half a million patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test.

A total of 540,593 patients were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy. The equivalent number in June 2019 was 40,099.

Dr Scriven described the figures for diagnostics test as “scandalous”.

He said: “We are particularly worried by the ongoing 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 540,600 – 47.8% of the total number of patients waiting – which, given the target is 1%, is scandalous.”

Gbemi Babalola, senior analyst at The King’s Fund, said people could be faced with lengthy waits for years to come.

She said: “The sheer scale of pent-up demand for healthcare services and the ongoing challenges facing staff during the pandemic mean there is a long and difficult road ahead.

“Health and care leaders are already bracing for an intense winter spike in demand and patients should expect long waits for care to continue for many months and maybe years to come.”