Coronavirus: Year-long waits for NHS care at highest since 2008

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By Nick Triggle
Health correspondent

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.css-14iz86j-BoldText{font-weight:bold;}The numbers waiting over a year for hospital treatment have hit a 12-year high in England as hospitals struggle to get services back to normal.

Nearly 2m patients have been waiting more than the target time of 18 weeks for routine care with 111,000 left for over a year, NHS England figures show.

The numbers starting cancer treatment and getting urgent checks are also below the levels seen a year ago.

But the NHS is seeing more people than in the spring when the pandemic hit.

The data released by NHS England shows:

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  • There are currently 4.2m people on the waiting list for routine treatment, such as knee and hip operations, nearly half of whom have waited longer than 18 weeks, which is three times higher than it was a year ago
  • Just over 100,000 of the waiting list have waited longer than a year – the highest number for 12 years
  • GPs made 169,600 urgent referrals for cancer check-ups in August, down from more than 200,000 the year before
  • Just over 20,000 patients started their cancer treatment in August, a drop of a fifth in a year
  • The numbers arriving at A&E in September was just below 1.7m, 400,000 lower than September 2020
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Fewer people coming to A&E

But NHS England insisted services were making “progress”, and said it was vital non-Covid services were not “jeopardised” by the second wave of coronavirus.

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‘I’ve been waiting 28 weeks’

Sophie Meredith, 35, from Telford, broke her left elbow in January and is still waiting to have an operation to fix it.

“It wasn’t a simple break – I had to wait eight to 10 weeks to have the operation, as something in my arm needed to heal,” she said.

But the coronavirus lockdown happened the day before it was due to go ahead on 24 March. “I’ve now been waiting 28 weeks,” she said.

Sophie, a contract manager for a facilities company, has yet to learn when it will take place.

The injury was on her dominant arm, so Sophie has had difficulty “doing a lot of things like brushing my teeth and writing”. She also suffers a “constant ache” and pain when she rotates her wrist.

She said she is “fearful” of people knocking into her when she goes out. “I don’t look like anything is wrong because I’m in a sling [not a cast].”

It has also impacted her ability to work. “I’m unable to drive [and] my job involves a lot of driving,” she said.

“I’m now dealing with emails and admin on a part-time basis.”

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Meanwhile, the latest data from NHS Test and Trace show the turnaround times for test results has worsened.

Results for only a quarter of tests in community testing venues were returned in 24 hours, compared with 38% the week before.

The service also continued to fail to achieve its target of reaching 80% of people who test positive to ask them for their close contacts – and also fell short of then contacting 80% of the close contacts infected individuals disclosed.

Covid second wave having impact on hospitals

The number of Covid patients being admitted to hospital is rising – latest figures show close to 500 a day are being brought in across England.

That is below the peak in the spring when 3,000 people were being admitted every day.

A large proportion of the admissions have been in the North of England, although overall only about 3% of hospital beds are currently taken up by Covid patients.

But health minister Nadine Dorries has tweeted that hospitals may only be 10 days away from reaching a “critical point” on Covid admissions.

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Ambulance arriving at an A&E departmentimage copyrightGetty Images

And Prof Michael Griffin president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, said he feared core services were already in the process of being curtailed.

He said he was hearing of hospitals cutting back on operations and diagnostic checks as they “prepare for an influx of Covid patients”.

He also warned there would be large numbers of “invisible” cancer patients who had not yet been diagnosed because they had not sought help.

Sara Bainbridge, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said the disruption caused by the pandemic was having a “traumatic impact” on cancer patients.

She warned: “Cancer must not become the ‘forgotten C’ during this pandemic.”

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