A record 4.59million people are now on the NHS waiting list for surgery, official stats show as the health service scrambles to catch up with a Covid backlog.
The number of people in the queue for routine procedures such as hip and knee replacements has surged by 170,000 since last January.
And a staggering 304,000 people have already been waiting for more than a year, according to the figures for January, a number that is 100 times higher than at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
Hospitals had to turf out patients during the first wave of Covid, and some during the second wave, and thousands of people saw their treatment delayed or cancelled.
Cancer waiting times have also spiked because of the delays, with the proportion of suspected patients getting seen by a specialist within the two-week waiting time target down to just 83 per cent.
It fell from 88 per cent in December last year and means 28,443 people with suspected cancer waited more than a fortnight to find out for sure in January.
The NHS is desperately trying to catch up with a backlog in patients caused by a hospital shutdown across the country during the height of the Covid crisis (stock image)
Figures from NHS England show that 4.59 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of January – the highest number since records began in August 2007.
The number waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment stood at 304,044 in the same month – the highest number for any month since January 2008.
A year earlier, the number of people waiting over a year was just 0.5 per cent of the current number, at 1,643.
WHAT DO JANUARY’S STATS SHOW?
Routine treatment waiting list is at record high 4.59million people in England, up from 4.52m in December.
More people than ever waiting more than a year for treatment – 304,044, up from 1,643 in January 2020.
Proportion of people seen by a cancer specialist within two weeks of warning sign drops to 83.4%, a record low.
More people waiting over a month to start cancer treatment after being diagnosed – 6% of patients.
e data showed the impact of the pandemic lockdown, with a 54 per cent drop in the number of people admitted for routine treatment in January compared with a year earlier.
Some 139,378 patients were admitted for treatment during the first month of this year, compared with 304,888 in January 2020.
Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: ‘This data shows again the enormous challenges we face now and into the future to recover services while also managing constant demand.
‘This week has been manic and flow through acute medical units is suffering due to the necessary infection control measures in place and the effect that has on reducing bed numbers…
‘Elective work is restarting imminently and this will add to the pressure on already exhausted staff.’
Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, added: ‘With fewer routine operations carried out and the pressure on services remaining high throughout 2021, this number will grow further.
‘We also know that referrals from GPs have also fallen in January, which means there is a hidden patient group not yet on the waiting list that will need treatment but haven’t come forward or entered onto waiting lists.
‘The pandemic and lockdown will have stopped some people from seeking treatment. But we do not yet know the additional demand this will heap onto services in the future. Exhausted NHS staff will have a lot of work ahead to clear record backlogs, which will need to be considered carefully.’
The cancer waiting times getting longer has caused serious concerns among experts and charities, who warn the pandemic has caused a ‘timebomb’ of the disease.
Fewer people than usual saw their doctors during the lockdowns, meaning many lived for longer with their cancer growing unchecked.
Dr Hans Kluge, World Health Organization director for Europe, said the impact the pandemic had had on cancer treatment was ‘catastrophic’.
He warned many more people will die in the coming years, particularly of breast and bowel cancer, for which screening appointments have been postponed.
The NHS cancer figures show that 83.4 per cent of people with suspected cancer were seen by a specialist within two weeks of being referred by their GP.
Two weeks is the NHS target for this and, in late 2019 and early 2020, more than 90 per cent of patients were being seen within it.
Waits have surged since, with the number of people facing agonising longer waits rising from 9.6 per cent in July to 13 per cent in November and 16.6 per cent in January.
And for people diagnosed with the condition, a greater proportion than ever are waiting more than a month to start their treatment – six per cent.
NHS data also shows an eight per cent drop in the number of people starting cancer treatment, meaning growing numbers of people are having potentially life-saving therapy delayed either because of NHS pressures or because they are undiagnosed.
Cancer Research UK chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said: ‘Whilst it’s positive that urgent referrals did not plummet as they did in the first wave, these January figures show that the pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on cancer patients.
‘Some patients faced cancellations to their cancer surgery, and this appears to be reflected in the figures.
‘The NHS has worked hard to protect cancer services where possible, but the NHS will have to operate at above pre-pandemic levels to make sure people get a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.’
Macmillan Cancer Support’s head of policy, Sara Bainbridge, added: ‘Covid-19 continues to cast a long shadow over people living with cancer, with yet another significant drop in the number of referrals for cancer diagnosis and treatment.
‘This is on top of the tens of thousands of people who are still missing a diagnosis due to disruption caused by the pandemic, which could be impacting their prognosis with each day that passes.’