NHS crisis: Nearly 5 million on operation waiting list

Karol Sikora outlines the progressive signs of cancer

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At the end of February, 4.7 million people were queuing to start treatment, according to NHS England. And nearly 390,000 of those patients have been languishing on lists for more than a year. Meanwhile, the number of people in Wales waiting for non-urgent hospital treatment hit a record high of 538,861.

The huge backlog is a direct result of the pandemic – and health experts warned the impact could be “catastrophic”.

But despite the enormous pressures the virus is putting on hospital staff, it was also revealed our NHS stars have managed to deliver almost two million operations and other elective care during January and February.

Their heroics came during one of the busiest periods of the Covid crisis.

Tim Mitchell, vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England blamed the second wave of coronavirus for the waiting list numbers.

He said: “The NHS had a brutal start to the year because of the second wave of Covid-19.

“Although we did see the number of patients with Covid decline in February, hospitals were still under huge pressure due to having to separate Covid and non-Covid care.

“Staff had to isolate, or were ill with the virus, and massive resources were needed to support the essential national vaccination effort.”

He added: “The most urgent operations, for cancer and life-threatening conditions, went ahead.

“But hundreds of thousands of patients waiting for routine surgery, such as hip and knee operations, cochlear implants and vascular operations, had treatment cancelled or postponed.”

In February, 387,885 people had been waiting for more than a year to start hospital treatment.

That is a huge rise from February last year, when the equivalent number was just 1,613.

People worried about cancer are among those who have suffered. Figures show GPs made 174,624 urgent referrals in February, compared with 190,369 the same time last year – a drop of eight percent.

This followed a year-on-year fall of 11 percent in January, but an increase of seven percent in December 2020.

The number of urgent referrals for some people with breast cancer symptoms were also down, from 13,627 to 12,199 – a slump of 10 percent.

But NHS England said February saw 22,000 people begin treatment for cancer, in line with February 2020.

And it pointed out the 174,000 cancer referrals made in this February was twice as many as the number made during the peak of the first Covid-19 wave in April last year.

However Sara Bainbridge, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the data “further illustrates the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on cancer diagnosis and treatment”.

She added: “Tens of thousands of people are still missing a diagnosis due to disruption caused by the pandemic, which could affect their prognosis.”

Meanwhile, almost 330,000 patients had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in February –up from 29,832 a year ago.

NHS England said another 327,663 people were waiting for one of 15 standard medical tests – including MRI scans, non-obstetric ultrasounds and gastroscopies.

The number of people admitted to hospital for routine treatment plummeted by 47 percent – from 285,918 in February 2020 to 152,642 this year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to pledge the Government will ensure the NHS has the funds it needs to tackle the build-up in waiting lists. He said yesterday: “We do need people to take up their appointments and to get the treatment they need.

“We’re going to make sure that we give the NHS all the funding it needs – as we have done throughout the pandemic – to beat the backlog.”

NHS England said a £1billion elective recovery fund will help trusts catch up on operations and other services.

It added every area of the country is being asked to “maximise their capacity to provide care for as many urgent and non-urgent patients as possible”.

NHS England National Medical Director Professor Stephen Powis praised his staff. He said: “Treating 400,000 patients with Covid-19 over the course of the last year has inevitably had an impact on the NHS.

“However it is testament to the hard work and dedication of staff that they managed to deliver almost two million ops and procedures in the face of the winter wave and improve waiting times for them, along with A&E and ambulance services.”

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