NHS waiting lists could hit a record ten million by April – with one in six people in England needing treatment, a report warns.
Researchers claim that the pandemic turned the NHS into the ‘National Covid Service’, with six million fewer referrals in 2020 than 2019.
Now health workers are braced for a surge from pent-up demand when lockdown curbs are eased in the coming weeks.
It could see the waiting list rise from 4.52million as of the end of December to ten million by April, modelling by the Reform think tank and data analytics firm Edge Health suggest.
A post-lockdown surge in demand could see the NHS waiting list rise from 4.52million as of the end of December to ten million by April, research suggests. Pictured: Ambulances queue outside the Royal London Hospital in January
The number waiting on the list for more than a year is also expected to be 12,000 per cent higher by April than last March.
Health charities and the Royal College of Surgeons last night warned that patients face the ‘grim reality’ of long waits for ‘years to come’.
Reform’s report in numbers
- Six million fewer referrals in 2020 than 2019;
- Waiting list could rise for 4.5million in December to 10million by April
- The number waiting on the list for more than a year could rise by 12,000 per cent by April, compared to last March
- Cancellations of diagnostic testing and delayed treatment may lead to 1,660 extra deaths from lung cancer alone
Patients delayed seeking care because they heeded Government calls to ‘stay home, protect the NHS’ or feared catching the virus at their GP surgery or hospital.
Meanwhile, the NHS postponed some non-urgent operations to free-up staff and beds for Covid cases.
Experts fear some people will have seen their condition deteriorate to a point where it can no longer be treated effectively, resulting in death or permanent disability.
It includes those with cancer, heart disease and mental health issues. There could be 1,660 extra lung cancer deaths alone due to the delays, the What Next For The NHS report claims.
The NHS worked hard to resume services over the summer but had to halt some non-urgent care again over winter as it struggled to cope with another wave.
The delays have led to an increase in people waiting more than a year for treatment, with waits of a year or more already up 7,139 per cent as of December, the latest month for which data is available.
Patients should be seen within 18 weeks of being referred to hospital for treatment.
Researchers describe their estimates as ‘conservative’ as they do not account for procedures cancelled this month and last.
Eleonora Harwich, director of research at Reform and a co-author, said: ‘We must never have the equivalent of a “National Covid Service” again. This is a system problem and in no way detracts from the heroic effort of NHS staff battling Covid-19.
‘However, the cessation of so much non-Covid care means patients are facing more serious health conditions or disabilities, and some will die prematurely.’
Pictured: People queue outside the Outpatients Department at the Basildon and Thurrock hospital in south west Essex, eastern England, on January 1, 2021
Reform is concerned that the NHS failed to properly use private providers to deliver non-Covid care while it battled the pandemic. It is now urging NHS England to force Trusts to publish their ‘waiting list recovery plans’, which state how independent sector capacity will be used.
Those not fully utilising this extra capacity or resources such as MRI machines to reduce the care backlog are being ‘negligent’, the think tank says.
It wants the NHS to open community diagnostic centres for cancer, cardiac and other conditions.
Those in most urgent need of care should also be identified and prioritised, it adds. The think tank is concerned that the Health and Social Care White Paper brought forward by the Health Secretary last week does not address the ballooning waiting list nor the need to boost capacity.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: ‘The grim reality confronting patients is that waiting lists will be long for years to come.’
Professor Neil Mortensen, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, agreed that the ‘huge surgical backlog’ could be as high as ten million.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: ‘The NHS has never been a Covid only service – for every Covid patient in hospital, the NHS is treating three people for other conditions – and it is obviously a disservice to the work done by our staff who have kept services going throughout the pandemic to suggest otherwise.’
What experts have previously said about the health impact of lockdown
Nearly 75,000 people could die from non-Covid causes as a result of lockdown, official figures predicated last year.
The startling research was presented to the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) in July.
The document revealed 16,000 people died as a result of the chaos in hospitals and care homes in March and April alone.
It estimates a further 26,000 will lose their lives within a year if people continue to stay away from A&E and the problems in social care persist.
And an additional 31,900 could die over the next five years as a result of missed cancer diagnoses, cancelled operations and the health impacts of a recession.
The estimates, drawn up by civil servants at the Department of Health, the Office for National Statistics and the Home Office, were presented to Sage at a meeting on July 15.
The documents stressed that had nothing been done to stop the spread of the virus in March, 400,000 people could have died of Covid.
And if the NHS had been overrun, this figure might have even soared to 1.4million. But they acknowledged the restrictions had significant unintended consequences.
The document said: ‘We estimate changes to emergency care may account for 6,000 existing excess deaths in March and April 2020. If emergency care in hospitals continues to be low for a full 12 months, this could result in an additional 10,000 excess deaths.’
It added: ‘We estimate there were approximately 10,000 non-Covid-19 excess deaths of care home residents in March and April 2020… there could be an additional 16,000 non-Covid-19 excess deaths over 12 months in care home residents.’
In the longer term, the officials estimate a 12,500 deaths over five years because of cancelled operations.
The impact on GP services could result in 1,400 deaths over five years from missed cancer diagnoses alone. The true impact will be much higher, they said, but they had been unable to model the impact on any disease area other than cancer.
The officials said lockdown will also lead to some reductions in mortality. Better air quality, fewer road accidents and less childhood disease will reduce overall deaths by roughly 1,000 over a year, they calculated.
And a further 4,000 lives will be saved thanks to ‘healthier lifestyles in the short-term’.