A record total of more than two million people – triple the figure for the same time last year – are having to wait more than 18 weeks to start hospital treatment in England, the latest figures show.
The number waiting rose to 2.15 million in July, more than three times the July 2019 figure of 620,454, and the highest number for any calendar month since current records began in August 2007.
The number waiting longer than 52 weeks was at the highest level for more than a decade, the NHS England statistics show.
In July, some 83,203 were waiting more than that length of time – the highest number for any month since November 2008.
President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England Professor Neil Mortensen said it was “disappointing to see waiting lists were still shooting upwards in July”.
He said: “Patients who have now been waiting many months, even a year or more for their treatment, cannot afford to wait until next spring. For those unable to return to work due to their condition, this is not only a health issue, but an economic one too.
“We urgently need to build up our hospital reserves if we are to see this winter through. Flu, together with continuing local Covid outbreaks, must not bring surgery to a standstill again, or thousands more will suffer.”
The lengthy waits are a “timely reality check on the challenges facing NHS services” as they deal with a backlog of patients since the pandemic hit, Gbemi Babalola, senior analyst at The King’s Fund, said.
Ms Babalola said: “NHS staff are working hard to restore services to full capacity, and help is available when people need urgent care and treatment.
“At the same time, there needs to be honesty about what is achievable, and recognition that, as we head into the traditionally challenging winter months, long waits for routine diagnostic and surgical procedures are likely here to stay.”
Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, called on the Government to “publish full winter crisis planning proposals which include investment into staffing and estates to cope”.
She said: “As we have seen for months now, the data shows the NHS is struggling hugely despite the drop in elective (planned) work and we are now seeing increased pressures with admissions creeping up and the isolation of suspected cases.
“The reduction in acute beds is a major concern for us; we cannot allow corridor care to return and, therefore, again urge a focus on the advantages of same-day emergency care to allow rapid assessment and treatment of patients without needing admission.”
The total number of people admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was down by around half in July compared with a year ago, but the fall is not as steep as earlier in the pandemic.
Some 142,818 patients were admitted for treatment during the month, down from 314,280 in July 2019.
The year-on-year decrease recorded in June was 67%, and in May the fall stood at 82%.
NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis described it as a “substantial rebound in routine appointments and operations, which have more than doubled since the peak of Covid”.
A&E attendances at hospitals in England continue to be below levels a year ago, with NHS England saying the fall was “likely to be a result of the Covid-19 response” – suggesting that people are still staying away from A&E departments because of the outbreak.
A total of 1.7 million attendances were recorded in August 2020, down 19% from 2.1 million attendances in August 2019.
The year-on-year drop for these has also been reduced, from a fall of 30% recorded in July and 33% in June.
Emergency admissions to A&E departments at hospitals in England also showed a fall last month, down 10% from 529,231 in August 2019 to 473,903 in August this year.
Last month 326 people waited more than 12 hours from the decision to admit to actually being admitted, compared with August last year when the number was 371.
President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Dr Katherine Henderson said she is “worried” that the number is creeping towards last year’s levels.
“Crowding is clearly making an unwelcome return to our emergency departments,” she said.
“We must eliminate crowding now, otherwise we risk turbocharging the spread of coronavirus in the very places designed to treat it.”
A total of 179,503 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in July 2020, down from 221,805 in July 2019 – a fall of 19%.
This compares with a year-on-year drop of 21% in June and 47% in May.
Urgent breast cancer referrals were down from 15,824 in July 2019 to 10,441 in July 2020 – a fall of 34%.
Prof Powis said that “pleasingly, cancer radiotherapy treatments are now fully back to their pre-Covid levels”.
The number of patients referred for radiotherapy cancer treatment in July was 8,257, up from a low of 6,532 in April, and above the 7,725 figure in February.
Prof Powis added: “The success of these service expansions depends on keeping Covid under control, so continued public action on hands-face-space, an effective Test and Trace service, and rapid action to control local outbreaks all continue to be vital.”
Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said recovering from the peak of the pandemic “was always going to require step-by-step increases in activity” and that the health service is “well on the way” to restoring services.
The figures also showed that just under half a million patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in July – with the equivalent number waiting longer than six weeks in July last year at 37,206.