For the first time since records began in 2007 the waiting list for routine NHS hospital care in England has exceeded five million. 5.12 million people are now waiting for operations such as hip and knee replacements – that’s up from 4.95 million in March 2021. Of those, 385,490 have been waiting for more than a year.
The latest NHS England performance statistics also show that cancer referrals and treatment have risen above pre-pandemic levels – 209,452 patients were seen by a specialist following urgent referral in April 2021 compared with 80,031 in April 2020 and 199,217 in April 2019.
Tim Gardner, Senior Policy Fellow at the Health Foundation says: “Waits of this magnitude are not acceptable to anyone and we know that the NHS and government are working hard to find a solution. The NHS needs to increase levels of activity, but this will be extremely difficult with significant workforce shortages, post-pandemic staff burnout and ongoing constraints on capacity due to COVID-19, including social distancing.
“The NHS urgently needs additional resources, but importantly, local services also need the freedom and support to trial and evaluate innovative new approaches to tackling the backlog and share learning across the country. Making incremental improvements to business as usual, while important, will not be enough to address a challenge of this scale.”
Furthermore, prioritising a reduction in the waiting lists without prioritising the welfare of staff may prove to be counter-productive in the long-term. Speaking at the webinar to launch HEFMA and IHEEM’s Workforce Strategy in May, Professor Richard Williams OBE, Emeritus Professor of Mental Health Strategy at the University of South Wales, cautioned that some of the modelling he has seen suggests that if staff – across all disciplines - are not given a substantial break now in order to recover, the system will suffer further down the line as productivity will dive. “I think there’s going to be a temptation to recover the system and not recover the staff and that’s what I’m concerned about,” he said.
To get the pacing of recovery right is going to be difficult and will require some brave decision-making, but Professor Williams warned that it needs to be done. “We’ve got to take it on, because if we don’t we will have an incompletely recovered system,” he said, which may see even more experienced and skilled people leaving the sector.