Chart of the week: Number of people waiting over a year for treatment has rocketed in months since onset of pandemic

Each week, we'll be taking a look at a different aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic, presenting our analysis in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. This week, Sarah Scobie highlights the dramatic rise in the number of people waiting for treatment and suggests that the health service's ambitions to reduce waiting times are unlikely to be achieved any time soon.

Chart of the week

Published: 15/07/2020

The number of people in England waiting over a year from referral by a GP to treatment has grown exponentially in the last 3 months, from 1,613 in February to 26,029 in May 2020. 

Hospitals cancelled all routine operations around the middle of March, and specialists were diverted to work with Covid-19 patients. For patients who were already waiting for treatment, this has meant even longer waits.

Apart from cancer services, which have more stringent waiting targets, all specialties for which data is reported have been impacted, although year-long waits have increased most for oral surgery, ophthalmology, gynaecology, and ear, nose and throat treatments.

Hospitals are now re-establishing routine services, but organising services to minimise the risks of transmission in hospital mean that productivity will be affected for some time to come.

The number of people waiting over a year dropped dramatically from over half a million in 2007 to a few hundred in 2013.  As the overall waiting list has increased in the last five years, the focus has shifted towards reducing longer waits again. The NHS operational plan for 2020/21 published in January 2020 had an ambition for the NHS to “stabilise and reduce waiting lists for elective care and eradicate waits of 52 weeks or more”.

It doesn’t look as though this ambition will be achieved any time soon.