NHS waiting list could be two million longer than thought

The ONS survey found more than one in five people are waiting for an NHS appointment
The ONS survey found more than one in five people are waiting for an NHS appointment

The NHS waiting list could be two million people longer than previously thought, new data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests.

A representative survey of almost 100,000 adults in England found that 21 per cent were waiting for an NHS appointment, test or medical treatment.

It means that around 9.7 million people – more than one in five – are waiting for an appointment when the survey’s results are extrapolated across the country, the ONS said.

Official waiting list data up until the end of January said that 6.3 million people were waiting for 7.6 million appointments because some people are on two or more waiting lists.

The NHS does not include those waiting for follow-up appointments or check-ups because they have already started a programme of treatment.

The survey also found that one in seven patients on the waiting list had been waiting for longer than a year for an appointment or treatment despite NHS figures suggesting it is fewer than one in 20.

While NHS data show that 321,394 patients have been waiting longer than 12 months for a first appointment after a referral, the ONS survey found the number waiting longer than a year was likely to be closer to 1.35 million.

Just over 14,000 people have been waiting 18 months according to NHS figures, but ONS suggests this could actually be more than 670,000 people, a year after the number waiting was supposed to have been eliminated.

‘Sunak has broken his pledge’

Last month the NHS also pushed back its target to bring down the number of people waiting 65 weeks or longer for an appointment to zero in an admission that Rishi Sunak’s target to cut lists had been missed.

Hospitals have now been asked to make sure this has happened by September “at the latest”.

Andrew Gwynne MP, the Labour shadow health minister, said: “Pull back the cover and the crisis in the NHS is even worse than it appeared.

“One in every five people in England are stuck on waiting lists, and they are waiting longer than ever before.

“Rishi Sunak has broken his pledge to cut waiting lists, and now he’s planning to close services and cut doctors and nurses,” he said. “The longer the Conservatives remain in office, the longer patients wait.”

Labour has said it will pay for an extra two million operations and appointments through evening and weekend clinics.

Sir Julian Hartley, the chief executive of NHS Providers said: “No patient should have to wait any longer than necessary for the care they need, especially since worsening conditions can lead to increased physical, emotional or mental distress.

He said: “Demand for services has been rising since the pandemic, while industrial action is taking a huge toll on patients and already-stretched services, hampering trusts’ ability to cut care backlogs. Trusts’ efforts must be matched urgently by national support.”

Brett Hill, the head of health and protection at consultancy firm Broadstone, said the gap between NHS data and the ONS findings were “of particular concern”.

He said it “suggests the proportion of UK adults now waiting for medical treatment or advice is far higher than previously understood”.

GP access

The ONS also surveyed the public on their access to GPs and satisfaction with their general practice.

Almost one in 10 people said they had been unable to make contact with their GP the last time they tried to book an appointment with most people finding it took two or more days to hear back.

Meanwhile 7.4 per cent said they were told to call back another day or ring 111 because the practice could not help.

Almost a third of patients said they had found it difficult or very difficult to get an appointment while just under half said it had been easy.

The survey was carried out between Jan 16 and Feb 15 2024 by NHS England and the ONS and involved 90,000 adults aged 16 and over in England.

An NHS spokesman said: “Work is ongoing to reduce the longest waits for patients but despite pressures and industrial action, hardworking NHS staff ensured the Covid backlog has fallen for four months in a row and 18-month waits are down almost 90% on their peak.

“In terms of GP care, almost two-thirds of people are happy with their experience, and millions more are being given appointments compared to before the pandemic. The latest NHS data shows there were 30.5 million appointments delivered by GPs and their teams in February 2024, compared with 24.7 million in February 2020.”