NHS facing ‘biggest pressure in history’ as 12 million await treatment

Health bosses warn that hospital waiting lists are set to more than double

Health Secretary Matt Hancock
Health Secretary Matt Hancock says that demand for care is rising in the NHS
(Image credit: Jacob King/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The NHS is facing unprecendented pressure from a backlog of patients caused by a year of pandemic-related disruption, Matt Hancock has warned.

The health secretary yesterday “told hospitals to brace for a flood” of more than 12 million people in need of elective surgeries, The Telegraph reports, as latest figures reveal that surgical activity in England and Wales decreased by 33.6% in 2020.

The biggest drop was in “Class 4” surgeries, which include hip or knee replacements and eye operations. Hancock told the NHS Confederation conference that “even with everybody working incredibly hard… we would have the biggest pressure on the NHS in its history”.

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Even with the health service “running at 100%”, clearing the waiting list would be a challenge, said Hancock, who added that he is “totally open about the fact that we fully expect the formally declared backlog to rise because there is another backlog out there - it just isn’t in the numbers”.

Around 5.1 million people are currently thought to be on waiting lists. However, health bosses “believe there could be a further 7.1 million who stayed away during the Covid pandemic but who will come forward demanding treatment”, The Telegraph says.

Hancock, whose reputation has already taken a battering this week after reports that the prime minister has called him “fucking hopeless” during the pandemic response, told the conference that “demand [is] returning and our emergency departments filling up. We know that there are already 5.1 million people in England waiting for care at this moment.”

More than 1.5 million operations were cancelled during the pandemic, and researchers estimate that this number will increase to more than 2.3 million by the end of 2021. A report, published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, notes that “there is likely to be a worsening” of a patient’s condition as they wait for semi-urgent and elective surgeries.

Experts at Swansea University Medical School and Queen Mary University of London compared 2020 hospital data for adults having surgery with the averages from the past four years to calculate the size of the surgical backlog, which “is likely to take many years to clear”, Dr Tom Abbott told the i newspaper.

Surgical activity slowed as the health service reallocated resources to manage Covid-19 cases, the study says, but an NHS spokesperson said: “The reduction in this activity occurred because fewer people came forward for care.”

Hancock yesterday suggested waiting lists will still increase in size, telling the NHS Confederation conference: “People who have not come forward for care during the pandemic… are now regaining the confidence to approach the NHS.”

The study comes just weeks after the Royal College of Surgeons of England called on the government to approve a deal granting an extra £1bn annual spending on surgery over the next five years to help reduce the “colossal elective surgery backlog” and aid the creation of “surgical hubs” where procedures can be carried out.

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