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NHS facing ‘alarming backlog’ after almost two million patients wait longer than 18 weeks for routine hospital treatment in a single month

The NHS stats on 18-week treatment time are the highest since records began in August 2007 (PA)

4 min read

Almost two million patients waited longer than 18 weeks for routine hospital treatment in June, the latest NHS figures show.

The figure is the highest since records began in August 2007, and the number of people waiting more than a year to start hospital treatment in England rose to 50,536, the highest for any calendar month since February 2009.

But the overall number of patients admitted for routine treatments was down 67% in June compared to a year ago.

The NHS England figures also show a total of 153,134 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in June, down more than 20% from the previous year.

And urgent breast cancer referrals showed an even bigger drop, down 43% from 14,885 to 8,495.

Sara Bainbridge, head of policy and influence at Macmillan Cancer Support, said those figures were "worryingly low" and suggest "an alarming backlog of undiagnosed cancer”.

And Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “All signals are pointing towards a growing and alarming backlog of clinical need with patients waiting longer for operations and diagnostic tests. 

“Waiting times were dire before the pandemic and we are reaching some worrying new lows. 

“Especially concerning is that the low number of people starting cancer treatment after attending national screening programmes, which indicates that people also aren’t able to access screening or quick treatment. 

“This is incredibly concerning when we know that early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to saving lives.”

He added: “We can’t ignore the fact that there are undoubtedly patients not getting help who may desperately need it. 

“We supported the lockdown to suppress this horrific virus but the far-reaching consequences for wider health outcomes must not be ignored.”

And Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “Waiting times were at a record high before the pandemic and now, alongside worryingly low cancer referrals, they are through the roof.

“There is another health crisis looming in the UK and people will be rightly worried for their loved ones.

“With our health and care services facing an almighty backlog, we need urgent action.

“The Government must step up with a clear plan on how people will get the treatment they need, including an urgent recruitment strategy, or risk more lives being lost."


The NHS statistics reveal A&E attendances at hospitals in England were down 30% last month compared with a year ago, saying this was "likely to be a result of the Covid-19 response" with people still staying away because of the pandemic.

It follows a 33% fall in June, 42% in May and 57% in April.

More than half a million patients also had to wait more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test such as an MRI scan, ultrasound or gastroscopy in June 2020.

The equivalent number in June 2019 was just 40,099, which Dr Nick Scriven, former president of the Society for Acute Medicine, called "scandalous".

In response an NHS spokesman said: "NHS staff have worked around the clock to treat 108,000 people for coronavirus since the pandemic escalated in March, including record numbers getting help through NHS 111, whilst also providing nearly 10 million urgent tests, checks and treatment for non-Covid issues, and 85,000 treatment starts for cancer patients, in a safe way.

"Now that we are through the first wave, local NHS staff are restoring non-Covid services, which have the capacity to treat those needing urgent, emergency and other essential care, so nobody should be put off seeking help from the NHS when they need it, whether through NHS 111, their GP, a pharmacist or hospital."

On the figures for cancer referrals they added: "Hospitals have successfully and quickly cared for patients urgently referred by their GP, with over 92% of urgent cancer referrals being investigated within two weeks, and 85,000 people starting treatment for cancer since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

"More people are now coming forward for a cancer check, with 45,000 extra referrals this month, and the key point remains that anyone who is concerned about a possible symptom should contact their GP and get a check-up."

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