Nearly 400,000 NHS patients in England have been waiting more than a year for routine treatment, according to NHS performance data.
A total of 387,885 patients in England have been waiting 12 months or more for planned surgery and other routine treatments. This has increased from just 1,613 a year ago and is the highest number for any month since December 2007.
The number of waiting patients is now so large and includes many people who may have waited two years or more for their operations, NHS England has said it will introduce new categories from April 2021 to show the number of patients who have waited beyond 104 weeks.
The total number of patients waiting has continued to grow to record levels and it is now estimated at 4.76 million, the most since August 2007.
More than a third are waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment, even though the NHS aims to ensure no more than eight per cent wait that long. This target was last achieved in 2016.
Tim Mitchell, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “Hitting the inauspicious milestone of a half a decade since the 18-week target for planned treatment was last met, reminds us the NHS capacity problem predates the pandemic.
“We already had too few beds and not enough staff to keep wider services, such as planned operations, going through hard winters and flu outbreaks.
“The symptoms were there even before the pandemic but the problem has now become chronic and needs long-term treatment. We need a new deal for surgery, with investment on a scale last seen in the 2000s, to get back on track meeting NHS waiting time standards.”
The data again underlines the huge challenge facing the NHS in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic which has led most hospitals to cancel operations, redeploy staff and delay appointments.
The number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England in February dropped by 47 per cent compared with a year earlier. A total of 152,642 patients were admitted compared with 285,918 in February 2020.
In January – at the height of the most recent coronavirus surge – the numbers were down 54 per cent.
Many of the patients affected include those waiting for hip and knee replacements.
Tracey Loftis, head of policy at the charity Versus Arthritis, said: “Waiting times for joint-replacement surgery have hit record highs in recent months and people with arthritis are bearing the brunt in delays to treatment, with tens of thousands now waiting over a year. People are in extreme distress, with many struggling to cope with pain which is impossible to ignore, worsening mental health and reduced quality of life.”
NHS England said 1.9 million routine operations were carried out in January and February. Across the whole of last year, the Health Foundation said four million fewer people completed elective treatment in England, down from 16 million to 12 million.
Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director said: “Treating 400,000 patients with Covid-19 over the course of the last year has inevitably had an impact on the NHS but it is a testament to the hard work and dedication of staff that they managed to deliver almost a million ops and procedures in the face of the winter wave and improve waiting times for them along with A&E and ambulance services.”