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NHS waiting lists in England hits a record 5.45 million and is set to increase to 14 million by Autumn 2022

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The latest data released by NHS England for June and July 2021 illustrates the continued disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on NHS care.

In July, the Health Secretary Javid Sajid announced that NHS waiting lists could rise to 13 million patients. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (“IFS”) reviewed their numbers to see whether this was likely. The response from the IFS was that Mr Javid's warning is "well within the realms of possibility" and the total could eventually surpass the health secretary's figure.

The report shows that:

  • 5.45 million patients are currently waiting for routine operations and procedures. This is now 29% higher than before the pandemic began in March 2020. 
  • Almost 388,000 people had waited over a year for an operation, compared to just 1,600 people last year. This is higher than at any time in the previous 13 years.
  • The number of patients on the waiting lists could soar to 14 million by autumn 2022 - and there are indications that this could continue to increase.
  • 2.16 million people were treated in A&E departments in July 2021.
  • Ambulances across England answered more than a million calls in July 2021 - and waiting times were the longest since a new way of logging calls was introduced in 2017.

The IFS have advised that in order to prevent this significant increase, the NHS will need to treat even more patients than it did before the pandemic. However, NHS capacity is a challenge at the best of times, let alone currently with the extreme pressures placed on the health service across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 Backlog

The IFS have warned that there is a huge hidden backlog of patients who are still yet to come forward for treatment. It is not yet conclusive how many patients are on this “hidden backlog”, but the IFS reports that there are approximately 7 million "missing patients" who would have been expected to join the waiting lists but have not. This may have been because they were worried about the risk of contracting Covid, particularly during the height of the pandemic, or because their conditions have not yet been picked up on.

The IFS have advised that even if only two-thirds of the missing patients return then with capacity at 95% of pre-pandemic levels - much more than the NHS is currently managing - waiting lists could easily exceed 13 million. The number could increase to 14 million by autumn 2022 - and continue to increase - if 80% of the missing patients return and the NHS operates at 90% of its capacity levels in 2019.

Even in the most optimistic projection, the IFS says it could rise to nine million by 2025, but that would need the NHS to be able to work at 5% more capacity than it did before the pandemic and would come at a cost of at least £2bn.

Therefore, the IFS advises that "expanding capacity will be the only solution to cutting waiting lists in the future." The government have responded by providing the NHS with £1bn this year to clear the backlog. However, if the NHS is unable to boost capacity, the IFS warns that longer waiting lists will be the norm for years to come.

Effect on patients

There are significant concerns that patients are being left in pain and unable to continue with day-to-day life as a result of the extensive waiting list. The long waits are a crisis that could take up to two to three years to get under control.

The report below highlights that almost 124,000 NHS patients are waiting over three months for MRI scans, colonoscopies and heart scans, as well as other tests which are all crucial to the detection of serious illness.

As one of the leading causes of death in the UK, any delay in treating cancer can have a devastating effect on the patient and their loved ones.

There has also been a significant delay in hip and knee replacement surgeries, which has resulted in many patients suffering increased pain and reduced mobility. Additionally, there are growing concerns about insufficient access to community mental health services especially those for children and young people.

The increase in long waits for routine care, as well as more complex tests and surgeries, could result in additional health problems arising due to delayed medical treatment and more harm caused to patients in the long run.

Contact our clinical negligence experts

It was foreseeable that the demands caused by the pandemic over the past year would impact the NHS’ capacity to treat patients. However, many patients have faced unreasonable delays and significant deterioration in their condition whilst waiting to see a medical professional. IBB’s clinical negligence solicitors appreciate the important role that compensation can play in providing financial security for the patient and their family, particularly if the patient has been unable to work or requires long term care and support. If you believe you or a family member may have suffered due to the excessive delays, please get in touch with our team of experienced clinical negligence solicitors who will be able to assess whether you have a claim.

For a commitment-free initial advice, call us today on 0333 123 9099. Alternatively, you can email us at or use the contact form on the right to request a call back.

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