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Covid not fully to blame for catastrophic NHS waiting lists

A report from the Nuffield Trust in conjunction with Health Foundation think tanks has highlighted that despite Covid recently being blamed for growing NHS waiting lists, the chronic delays have been increasing for years amid chronic staff shortages.

The Quality Watch report describes the NHS as 'already stretched beyond its limits' before even the Covid pandemic struck, with the number of people waiting for routine hospital treatment in England almost tripling from 2.5 million in 2012 to 6.78m currently.

While the report acknowledged that Covid accelerated the trend, it suggests that even without the pandemic, waiting lists for elective care would stand at 5.3 million. The worst affected care include scans, A&E and cancer care.

The proportion of patients starting treatment such as chemotherapy within two months of a GP referral has massively fallen over the past decade. In 2012, around 88 per cent of cancer patients received treatment within the designated two-month target. This fell to 74 per cent before the pandemic and reached a record low of 61 per cent in May 2022.

Waiting times for key diagnostic tests, including MRI and CT scans, had also escalated. The backlog increased to one million by February 2020 before reaching 1.6m this year. If pre-pandemic trends had continued, the report estimates that 1.2m would be waiting for these tests.

Clearly, the longer people wait for diagnosis and follow-up care, the worse their prognosis. Delays mean conditions are caught later meaning there are fewer treatment options available.

The report also adds that A&E waiting times now at catastrophic levels were 'deteriorating long before the pandemic'. Latest figures reveal that 1,000 people per day waiting at least 12 hours to be seen in A&E.

The Times reports that Patricia Marquis, head of the Royal College of Nursing, currently balloting members for strike action, said:

"The first thing the new prime minister should do is put this report at the top of their in-tray."

These foreseeable problems are not going improve until the government tackles the root causes for the chronic shortages of nurses, midwives and doctors it has allowed to develop since 2010.

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