The number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment rose to a new record high in February, latest official data showed.
Monthly figures released by NHS England showed there were 6.18 million referral-to- treatment patients waiting for consultant-led care at the end of the month – up from 6.1 million in January, and the highest since records began in August 2007.
Of those waiting, 299,478 patients were waiting more than 52 weeks and 23,281 patients were still waiting after more than 2 years.
Figures showed that 62.6% of patients waiting to start treatment were waiting up to 18 weeks, which was well short of the 92% target.
For patients waiting to start treatment at the end of February, the median waiting time was 13.1 weeks.
Emergency Care Performance
Meanwhile, 22,506 people waited more than 12 hours in A&E departments across England from decision to admit to actual admission. That was an increase of 37.2% on the 16,404 number recorded for February. In March 2019, only 331 people waited more than 12 hours in an emergency department to be admitted for treatment.
Ambulance response times for the most urgent to the least urgent callouts dropped to their lowest level since the categories were introduced in 2017.
For urgent incidents, classified as C1, the average response time in March was 9 minutes 35 seconds, below the seven-minute target, and an increase on the 8 minutes and 51 seconds recorded for February.
For C2 emergency category callouts, such as cardiac or respiratory arrest, stroke, or burns, the average waiting time in March was 1 hour, 1 minute and 3 seconds, compared with 42 minutes and 7 seconds the previous month, and below the 40-minute target.
NHS England said that despite the busiest winter ever, the number of patients waiting longer than a year for treatment fell by 12,000 in February, with the number of people waiting over two years decreasing by over 500.
Emergency departments remained under significant pressure with 2.17 million people attending A&E in March, a spike of nearly 20% month to month, and the highest March ever, it said.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, commented: "Nobody should be under any illusion about how tough a job NHS staff have on their hands, balancing competing priorities and maintaining high quality patient care."
Financial Squeeze Blamed
Responding to today's figures, NHS Providers said hospital trust leaders were describing the current situation as "the most sustained, difficult, and pressured period of time they can remember in the NHS", and that they were "extremely worried about the impact of that pressure on their staff".
NHS Providers Chief Executive, Chris Hopson, blamed underfunding. "Between 2010 and 2020 the NHS went through the longest and deepest financial squeeze in its history," he said. "It was, therefore, unable to grow capacity to match growing demand, leaving a significant capacity shortfall. Huge workforce shortages have built up, with 110,000 vacancies and only 27% of staff saying their organisation has sufficient staff to do their job properly."
The King's Fund said that the latest clutch of statistics demonstrated "pressures now reaching unacceptable levels in all parts of the health and care system". According to analyst Danielle Jefferies: "The common link between the unrelenting pressure across all parts of the NHS and social care is a chronic shortage of staff."
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine called for action to address the "lamentable" situation facing emergency care. Vice-President Dr Ian Higginson said: "The government must publish an urgent and emergency care recovery plan, as well as take meaningful action to tackle the social care crisis. It is also critical that the government publish a fully funded long-term NHS workforce plan and open 10,000 beds across the UK."
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the latest NHS performance figures were "completely unacceptable" and agreed they were "a symptom of wider problems".
Pat Cullen, the RCN's general secretary, said: "When chronic understaffing leaves care undone in mental health, general practice, and community healthcare or care homes, patients deteriorate to the point emergency treatment is their only option."
The Nuffield Trust warned that the current high prevalence of COVID-19 cases, accompanied by a rise in hospitalisations, was making matters worse. Dr Sarah Scobie, the Trust's deputy director of research, said: "While restrictions have been ditched, the COVID pressure in hospitals is ramping up, not down.
"Over 15,000 patients were in hospital with COVID in England at the end of March, and this continues to grow going into April. This will inevitably slow down the effectiveness of the Government's elective recovery plan.
"While we've seen a very small drop in patients waiting for two years, the number of patients waiting over a year has been hovering around 300,000 for almost a year now.
"It is hard to imagine an end in sight, with lengthy waits for healthcare firmly here to stay."
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association council chair, agreed with that assessment. "The Government must be honest about the scale of the challenge and realise that unless it puts in place measures to bring down soaring COVID infection rates we will continue to see high levels of staff absences, increasing the pressure on the NHS and jeopardising any hope of recovery in the foreseeable future," he said.
As things stand, there was "no confidence among the medical profession in the Government's ability to tackle the backlog", Dr Nagpaul added.
Lead Image Credit: NHS