Number of people on England’s NHS waiting list tops 5m for first time

The number of people waiting for hospital treatment in England has exceeded 5 million for the first time, highlighting the growing problem of long waits for NHS care.

NHS England’s latest set of monthly performance figures, published on Thursday, show that the waiting list stood at 5,122,017 in April – up 171,720 in a month.

The total has risen from the 4.95 million who were on it in March, which was itself almost 252,000 up on the 4.698m recorded in February – a month-on-month rise of 5.4%.

The number of people being forced to wait at least a year for treatment in hospital, especially surgery, has fallen for the first time in over a year but remains a serious problem. Thursday’s figures also show that 385,490 people have now been waiting more than 52 weeks, 50,637 down on the 436,127 who were in that position last month.

Such long waits are a new phenomenon. In contrast, in March last year – before Covid-19 triggered a suspension of much NHS care – just 3,097 patients had faced such an unusually long delay.

Ministers, NHS chiefs, medical groups and health charities are worried that growing numbers of patients are facing lengthening waits for vital care including cancer treatment, a hip or knee replacement, heart operations and surgery to remove cataracts to improve eyesight.

Thursday’s statistics underline the huge disruption to normal NHS services the pandemic has wrought since last spring and the huge scale of the backlog of care facing hospitals.

Last month’s figures led the Royal College of Surgeons to describe the number of patients now on the waiting-list as “stomach-churning”. It warned that the NHS staff who are under pressure to tackle the backlog as soon as possible were “running on fumes after an unimaginably difficult year helping out on Covid-19 wards”.

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