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Covid-19 Not The Only Cause Of England’s ‘Predictable’ Healthcare Woes

More than five million people would be waiting for hospital care in England even if the pandemic had never happened, expert analysis suggests.

Covid-19 has “accelerated” a decline in performance driven by underfunding, staffing shortages and growing patient demand, say the authors of the new report.

Researchers from the Nuffield Trust and Health Foundation think tanks crunched historical waiting list numbers to try and figure out how many people would potentially be waiting for care if the pandemic had never happened.

Around 4.4 million people were waiting for elective procedures — non-urgent treatments like cataract surgery and hip replacements — in England, in the months before the pandemic. That figure now stands at 6.73 million: an increase of roughly 2.33 million.

While the bulk of this rise waits can be blamed on the pandemic, which has seen elective procedures cancelled on numerous occasions as Covid-19 has put pressure on hospitals, the disease is only part of the picture, researchers say.

According to pre-pandemic trends, that figure was still on track to hit 5.3 million by now: an increase of 900,000 patients.

For diagnostics, the team predicted a waiting list of 1.2 million people regardless of the pandemic. In May, that waiting list topped 1.5 million, around 300,000 more than the existing trend would suggest.

The report authors say this is an acceleration of a “predictable” decline already taking place within a service stretched beyond its limits.

“There is no denying the seismic upheaval that Covid-19 has had on health and care services, but the pandemic itself cannot be seen as the sole cause of the alarming waits for care,” Nuffield Trust Fellow Jessica Morris said.

“This is reflective of a demand, staffing and resources mismatch that has been in play for a long time.

“Pre-existing backlogs for routine care, increasing waits in emergency departments, longer ambulance response times and waits for cancer treatment have only been accelerated throughout the pandemic. This has made the NHS recovery challenge even more daunting.”

Beyond the total number of people waiting for care, the length of time they tend to be waiting has risen sharply over the pandemic. Recovery efforts have focused on treating the longest waiters first, as well as those with the most urgent needs.

Hospital bosses have long been calling on government for extra support to shore up stretched resources like the workforce. With a new Prime Minister due to be selected next week, charities, industry groups, think tanks and health service bosses themselves are keen to highlight the need for serious focus on the NHS.

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