17 May 2021

NHS England waiting times reached record high in January

Nearly 5m patients were waiting to start medical treatment as NHS struggled with second Covid peak

The number of people waiting for medical treatment in England reached a record high in January for the second month running.

Figures from NHS England show 4.59 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of January - the highest number since records began in August 2007, reflecting the severe pressures faced by the health service due to the second Covid peak.

The number waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment stood at 304,044 in the same month – the highest number for any calendar month since January 2008.

Patients are now waiting 12.1 weeks on average, up from 8.4 weeks in January 2020. This remains well below the 19.6-week median wait recorded in July 2020.

Prof Stephen Powis, the national medical director for NHS England, said: "Admitting more than 100,000 Covid patients to hospital in a single month inevitably had a knock-on effect on some non-urgent care."

"However, thanks to the hard work of NHS staff and the innovations in treatment and care developed over the course of the pandemic, hospitals treated more than 1 million people with other conditions in January, at the peak of the winter wave, nearly twice as many as they did last April."

"That is a testament to the skill, dedication and commitment nurses, doctors, therapists and countless other staff showed in the most challenging period in NHS history."

A separate release also showed a fall in the number of people presenting for cancer checks and treatments, which were down across every single category this past January compared with the same month in 2020.

The figures include an 11% drop in the number of people being seen by a specialist for suspected cancer following an urgent referral by their GP, compared with January 2020. The NHS aims to see 93% of these patients within two weeks; however, just 83.4% were seen within a fortnight in January, a record low.

The number of people in England starting cancer treatment is also down 16% compared with the same month last year. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that 37,000 fewer people have started treatment for cancer than should have done between March 2020 and the end of January.

Macmillan's head of policy, Sara Bainbridge, said the newly released figures "cast a long shadow over people living with cancer", adding that tens of thousands of people have missed out on a diagnosis due to disruption caused by the pandemic.

Elsewhere, the NHS figures showed that A&E attendances were the third lowest on record in terms of all A&Es and the second worst in terms of type 1 (general) A&Es although the proportion seen within four hours in both settings was up compared to January. The overall number of people attending a type 1 A&E in February was down 27% compared with the same month last year and down 35% across all A&E attendances.

The number of people waiting six weeks or more for diagnosis of treatments including MRIs, colonoscopies and gastroscopies stood at 377,651 in January - down 34% compared with the levels seen in April 2020 - but still eight times as high as the same month last year.