More than 400,000 children in England are now waiting for a hospital appointment, the highest number ever on record, the latest NHS England figures reveal. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) condemned the figures, pointing out that the numbers did not include children waiting for appointments from community health services.
Newly-published NHS England data from March 2023 shows that a total 403,955children are currently on the waiting list for consultant-led paediatric services, with 17,991 waiting more than a year, and 452 waiting over 18 months.
Worsening Waiting Times for Children
The paediatric services waiting list had grown by 158,256 between April 2021 and March 2023 – a 39% increase in just 2 years. During this period, there had been considerable progress made in shrinking the adult services waiting list backlog, but the children’s list continued to rise at an unpreceded rate, pointed out the RCPCH, which condemned the figures.
The College added that these numbers were "already too high", and "only represent the recorded and counted cases, failing to capture the true extent of the issue". They added that the figures "do not cover community waiting lists".
The data also revealed that just 59.8% of paediatric patients were seen within 18 weeks, where the NHS target is 92%. The average waiting time for children and young people is now well over 3 months – at 13.5 weeks.
The RCPCH said the consequences of such long waiting times are particularly damaging for children, as many treatments and interventions must be administered within specific age or developmental stages, making the irrevocable effects of such delays even more pronounced.
The College is calling on Health Secretary Steve Barclay to put children at the heart of policy making by including ringfenced funding for children's service recovery at all levels – community, elective, and urgent care – and by publishing the long promised long-term, fully costed, NHS workforce plan immediately.
'A National Scandal'
RCPCH President Dr Camilla Kingdon said: "It is a national scandal that over 400,000 children are stuck in limbo on a list, waiting for treatment. These children could fill Wembley stadium four times over. Of this number, 17,991 of them have been waiting for more than a year.
"NHS England has a zero-tolerance policy for 52-week waits, so it is deeply concerning that these targets are being missed. The clear regional variation in size of waiting lists, also means that this is an equity issue for children and their families. Child health teams are working tirelessly to address the growing backlogs, but without proper support, their efforts are unable to make a meaningful dent in the problem."
Continuing, she said: "The recent focus on adult service recovery through the elective recovery plan has further deprioritised children's health in national and local policies, raising alarming questions about the commitment to children's well-being.
"The Government's recent decisions to abandon the 10-year mental health plan, 10-year cancer plan, and the health disparities white paper, along with the delay in implementing vital policies to prevent obesity, has added to our concern. Paediatricians had hoped these plans would urgently address the unacceptable child health outcomes in England."
Children's Voices 'Not Being Heard'
Also commenting on the figures, RCPCH Officer for Health Services, Dr Ronny Cheung, said: "It's clear now that the voices of children are not being heard. It seems that the focus in the lead up to the next election is primarily on voting-aged adult issues. The health of our children is simply not a priority."
He added: "We need to start investing in our future and that means investing in children's health. We are calling on the UK Government to produce a cross-departmental child health strategy, that puts children at the centre of its decision making, and includes a focus on inequalities, well-being, physical and mental health. We also need the publication of a long term and evidence-based workforce plan to map the staff shortages and start tackling them so that we can offer the best care for children throughout the country."
NHS: Trusts Faced with 'Extraordinary' Operational Challenges
In response, an NHS spokesperson said: "Trusts have faced extraordinary operational challenges – including the impact of COVID and industrial action alongside huge demand for all services – impacting their ability to recover elective care, but tackling the backlog is a key priority for the NHS and hardworking staff have already virtually eliminated two year waits and are making good progress on reducing 18 month waits, which includes many children.
The spokesperson pointed out that the NHS is investing in new surgical capacity and that "local teams continue to find innovative ways to tackle the backlog", using the example of paediatric 'Super Saturdays', where surgery is extended for children at the weekend.
"It remains as important as ever that children and families come forward for care through 999 in an emergency or use 111 online or their local GP for other health conditions," the spokesperson added.