In Depth

Reaction: NHS waiting lists expected to hit ten million amid coronavirus backlog

Healthcare bosses predict number people waiting for treatment will double by Christmas

Ten million people may be on NHS waiting lists by the end of the year as the health service battles to clear a backlog of cases, healthcare bosses are warning. 

The combined effects of social distancing measures, delays to treatments and staffing challenges stemming from the coronavirus outbreak are likely to see waiting lists doubling from current levels, according to the NHS Confederation.

The organisation, which represents health and care leaders, says that “emergency funding and longer-term spending” are needed urgently to tackle the expected crisis, reports the BBC.

The number of people “waiting to undergo a procedure in a hospital in England such as a hernia repair, cataract removal or hip or knee replacement stood at 4.4 million before the pandemic”, says The Guardian.

But when Covid-19 began spreading across the UK, officials urged hospitals to “cancel operations and turf out patients”, as the Daily Mail puts it, to make way for people infected with the virus. 

With GPs also referring fewer patients to hospitals, the number of patients on NHS waiting lists fell to 4.2 million in March.

However, the NHS Confederation estimates in a new report that this figure is likely to grow to 9.8 million by the end of the year.

“Even under the best-case scenario, it is anticipated that the waiting list will rise to eight million by the end of the year,” Sky News says. 

And “the most pessimistic scenario assumes there will be a lack of treatments or a vaccine for Covid-19 and a second wave of infections, pushing the waiting list to 11 million”, the broadcaster continues.

BBC health editor Hugh Pym says “it is hard to forecast how quickly those patients who have stayed away from hospitals because of fears of the virus will return to seek urgent treatment”.

“The bigger point,” he writes, “is that the government in Westminster needs to think very hard about how the health service is managed in the months ahead and how patients’ expectations should be prepared”.

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Experts predict it could take “two years to clear the backlog, even if there is no second wave of coronavirus”, according to the Daily Mail.

The newspaper says that NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson has written to Boris Johnson urging the prime minister “to prepare the public for the huge waits they will have to face for months after the crisis is over”.  

Meanwhile, a Royal College of Nursing spokesperson told The Guardian that the NHS in England is short of “about 40,000 nurses”, and that “for burnt-out nursing staff on short-staffed wards, care homes or clinics, it will be a struggle to restart services”. 

“The legacy of this pandemic is yet to dawn. The professionals are still focused on the here and now,” the spokesperson said.

Calling for action by the government, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said that “ministers need to take heed of these warnings from NHS leaders now”.

“It is vital that ministers begin to address this backlog of delayed treatment and rising clinical need,” he added. 

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Guidance has already been issued to the NHS on how they should start to restore urgent services in a safe way.” 

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