Nuffield Trust: Significant pressure building up as waiting list exceeds record numbers

Sarah Scobie responds to the latest combined NHS performance statistics.

Press release

Published: 11/03/2021

Responding to the monthly combined NHS performance statistics from NHS England and NHS Improvement, Nuffield Trust Deputy Director of Research Sarah Scobie said:

“At the beginning of this year, NHS staff were working under incredible strain treating Covid patients, with an average of over 30,000 patients in hospital on any given day in January and 34,000 beds, 30% of the total across England, occupied by Covid patients at the peak. Despite this, the NHS has remained open to all. Non-Covid activity has been higher than in the first wave, but the pandemic response has slowed the stream of routine operations to a trickle, and behind that, there is significant pressure building up.

“The waiting list is now at the highest point since records began in August 2007. The number of patients still waiting after a year to start treatment is now over 300,000 – the highest level in 13 years. With fewer routine operations carried out and the pressure on services remaining high throughout 2021, this number will grow further.

“We also know that referrals from GPs have also fallen in January, which means there is a hidden patient group not yet on the waiting list that will need treatment but haven’t come forward or entered onto waiting lists. The pandemic and lockdown will have stopped some people from seeking treatment. But we do not yet know the additional demand this will heap onto services in the future. Exhausted NHS staff will have a lot of work ahead to clear record backlogs, which will need to be considered carefully.

“The NHS will have to work through this building waiting list, boost capacity and adjust to the ongoing demands of Covid-19 on the health service. A plan for recovery with additional resources for the NHS will be needed as the damage from the pandemic continues to be felt in the years ahead.”

Notes to editors

  • The latest monthly combined performance figures from NHS England can be found at:
  • The Nuffield Trust is an independent health think tank. We aim to improve the quality of health care in the UK by providing evidence-based research and policy analysis and informing and generating debate.
  • For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Simon Keen on 07780 475 571 or