Record number of patients waiting a year for treatment at Fylde coast hospitals
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NHS rules state that patients referred for non-urgent consultant-led elective care should start treatment within 18 weeks.
But NHS statistics showed 1,672 patients listed for elective operations or treatment at the NHS Trust running Blackpool Vic and Clifton Hospital in St Annes at the end of February had been waiting for at least a year – 9 per cent of all those on the waiting list.
This was an increase from just one per cent the year before, and the highest figure for the month of February since comparable records began in 2012.
Janet Barnsley, Director of Operations at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: "The Trust has now begun non-urgent work once again. We have kept our patients informed throughout, and will be working to restore our full services as a priority in the coming year.
"We are pleased that we continued to operate emergency, urgent and cancer services through the pandemic."
Independent health think tank The Nuffield Trust said the NHS has been set back years by the coronavirus pandemic, and now faces a "major backlog".
The number of people waiting a year or more for treatment across England has risen to 387,900 – the highest total since December 2007, and almost 250 times that of February 2020.
The Nuffield Trust also said the strain of the backlog on patients should not be underestimated, but added it was "no surprise" given the intense pressure of Covid-19 hospitalisations.
Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the organisation, said healthcare staff have made huge sacrifices during the pandemic, but more will be asked of them.
She said: “It is clear that the NHS has been set back years as it faces a battle to clear these major backlogs of postponed care.
"Returning to the levels of activity seen before March last year will not be enough to meet demand, and we will continue to live with coronavirus for years to come."
Overall, 18,444 people were waiting to start hospital treatment at the Vic or Clifton Hospital at the end of February – an increase of 9 per cent on February 2020.
Across England, 4.7 million people were waiting for treatment at this time – the highest number since records began in mid-2007.
This was up from 4.6 million in January, and means almost half a million patients have been added to the waiting list since the pandemic began in March 2020.
In response to the statistics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Government would ensure the NHS has the funds it needs to tackle the build-up in waiting lists.
"This is a real priority now for our country - 4.7 million people on waiting lists," Mr Johnson said.
"Of course it's been exacerbated, it's been made worse by Covid. People I don't think have been going to hospital, haven't been going to use medical facilities in the way that they might have been throughout the pandemic.
"We do need people to take up their appointments and to get the treatment that they need. "We're going to make sure that we give the NHS all the funding that it needs, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to beat the backlog.
"We've put about £92 billion already extra into the NHS this year and we're going to do whatever it takes. But the NHS has done an incredible job so far. I've no doubt that they're going to be able to tackle this as well."
NHS England highlighted that staff had delivered almost two million operations and other elective care in January and February, one of the busiest periods of the pandemic.
It said around two in five of all patients who have received hospital treatment for Covid-19 were admitted in those first two months of the year.
Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “This data shows pressure is high and growing despite the fall in Covid cases and this was prior to the country starting to come out of lockdown.
“Just this week the workload in acute medical units has felt too many like the pre-pandemic ‘eternal winters’ we had been working through for too long.
“The scale of pressure on the system is illustrated by the fact the number waiting more than 12 hours in an ED (emergency department) last month has doubled compared to March in 2019 pre-pandemic despite overall attendances and admissions being vastly reduced.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said the figures showed “how hard trusts are working to recover care backlogs as well as the size of the future challenge they face, despite a decline in Covid-19 patients”.
The King's Fund, a health charity, said long waiting times do not just affect patients, with concerns growing over access to community services and mental health provision.
David Maguire, senior analyst at the King's Fund, said: "The Government needs to be honest with the public and start planning for long-term NHS recovery.
"A good place to start would be with a fully funded workforce strategy to address the persistent staff shortages that have dogged the service for years."
Figures also showed that the number of people admitted for routine hospital treatment in England was down 47 per cent in February, compared with a year earlier.
Some 152,642 patients were admitted for treatment during the month, compared with 285,918 in February 2020.
Because 2020 was a leap year, February contained 29 days rather than the usual 28.
The year-on-year decrease recorded in January was 54 per cent, while in December 2020 the drop was 25 per cent.
Data showed 1.9 million elective procedures or support for patients took place amid the recent winter surge of Covid-19 infections, and there were some 2.6 million A&E visits in that period, NHS England said.
Figures also showed that 174,624 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in February, compared with 190,369 a year before – a year-on-year drop of 8 per cent.
This follows a year-on-year fall of 11 per cent in January, but an increase of 7 per cent in December 2020.
Urgent referrals where breast cancer symptoms were present – though not initially suspected – were down from 13,627 in February 2020 to 12,199 in February 2021, a fall of 10%.
Meanwhile, almost 330,000 patients had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in February.
NHS England said a total of 327,663 patients in the country were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy.
The equivalent number waiting for more than six weeks in February last year was 29,832 and the monthly total peaked at 571,459 in May 2020.
February saw 22,000 people begin treatment for cancer, in line with February last year, while the 174,000 people being referred for cancer checks was twice as many as during the peak of the first Covid-19 wave in April last year.
It added that the time taken for ambulances to reach “category one” patients, whose condition is classed as life-threatening, fell to six minutes and 47 seconds against a seven-minute target.
It said a £1 billion elective recovery fund will help trusts to restore operations and other services, with every area of the country being asked to “maximise their capacity to provide care for as many urgent and non-urgent patients as possible”.
Sara Bainbridge, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the data “further illustrates the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on cancer diagnosis and treatment”.
“Tens of thousands of people are still missing a diagnosis due to disruption caused by the pandemic, which could affect their prognosis,” Ms Bainbridge added.
Tim Mitchell, vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “The NHS had a brutal start to the year because of the second wave of Covid-19, and this is reflected in today’s figures.
“Although we did see the number of patients with Covid-19 decline in February, hospitals were still under huge pressure due to having to separate Covid and non-Covid care, staff having to isolate or being ill with the virus, and the massive resource needed to support the essential national vaccination effort.
“Although the most urgent operations, for cancer and life-threatening conditions, went ahead, hundreds of thousands of patients waiting for routine surgery such as hip and knee operations, cochlear implants and vascular operations had their treatment cancelled or postponed.”
A&E attendances at hospitals last month rose 10 per cent year-on-year, but this is partly a reflection of the lower-than-usual numbers for March 2020, which were affected by the start of the pandemic.
A total of 1.7 million attendances were recorded in England in March 2021, up from 1.5 million in March 2020, with the equivalent figure for March 2019, a non-pandemic year, being 2.2 million.
Emergency admissions to A&E departments also rose last month, to 503,913 from 427,968 in March 2020.
The year-on-year change will again have been affected by the lower-than-usual numbers for March 2020, and the equivalent figure for March 2019 was 555,457.
NHS England national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Treating 400,000 patients with Covid-19 over the course of the last year has inevitably had an impact on the NHS, but it is a testament to the hard work and dedication of staff that they managed to deliver almost two million ops and procedures in the face of the winter wave and improve waiting times for them, along with A&E and ambulance services.”