The number of people waiting for non-urgent treatment on the NHS in England is likely to pass 6 million by the New Year, Sajid Javid has suggested.
The Health and Social Care Secretary repeated his warning that the current waiting list figure, which he gave as 5.9 million people waiting for elective procedures, “is going to go up before it comes down” as millions who stayed away during the height of the Covid crisis return to seek healthcare on the NHS.
He said: “This number is going to go up before it comes down. Why? Because some seven to eight million people stayed away during the height of the Covid crisis because they were asked to. They did what was asked of them.
“But I want them to come forward, I want them to come back to the NHS, I want them to know that it is open to them, and if you take that along with normal demand of course that is huge pressure.”
A total of 5.7 million people in England were waiting to start treatment at the end of August and 5.83 million people at the end of September, according to the latest official figures, suggesting the list is rising by around 100,000 people a month.
Earlier this year Mr Javid warned that the waiting list could go as high as 13 million people if urgent action is not taken by hospitals to try and bring down the backlog. However, hospitals are under an “unprecedented degree of pressure” even before the traditional winter peak in January, the head of NHS Providers warned.
Chris Hopson said trying to work out how high the figure could rise was a “guessing game”. But he insisted health staff are “working absolutely flat out” to meet demands.
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Mr Hopson said: “We simply don’t know how many people who didn’t come forward during Covid-19, during the pandemic, will actually come forward, and therefore we are in a bit of a guessing game about exactly how many. But the bit I can assure you is that NHS staff and NHS leaders are working incredibly hard at the moment to create that plan to ensure that we can get through that backlog as quickly as possible.”
It comes as the chief executive of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) said stopping “dangerous” crowding in emergency departments should be the Government’s number one priority in hospitals.
Gordon Miles issued his warning after a report found thousands of excess deaths were caused as a result of crowding in emergency departments due to lengthy waits for treatment. The RCEM said crowding is associated with increased mortality and increased hospital length of stay, and also affects efficiency in hospitals and contributes to staff burnout.
The RCEM’s report said crowded emergency departments “delay and dilute the quality of care”, and although this might not have an immediate effect on the patient, argued that it increases their risk of death after leaving the emergency department.
Dr Miles said demand and capacity in emergency care are “severely mismatched”.
In a letter to the Sunday Times he wrote: “Emergency departments now sustain other parts of the healthcare system and are the first port of call for many patients, despite not always being the most appropriate place to receive care. There is an urgent need to plan for our future healthcare requirements – and eliminating dangerous crowding in emergency departments must be the number one priority.”
The college’s report, published days earlier, suggested at least 4,519 patients died as a result of crowding and 12-hour stays in A&E departments in England in 2020-2021.
The report stated: “If we assume that the harm suffered between eight to twelve hours continues in patients who stay longer than 12 hours, then 4519 excess deaths occurred in England.”
It said the discovery adds to NHS England’s own findings that one in 67 patients staying in the emergency department for 12 hours comes to excess harm. After its publication, the college called on the Government to publish a long-term workforce plan, including provisions to retain existing staff who are reaching burnout and obtaining new recruits.
Meanwhile Mr Javid has admitted that the Government was not on track to recruit its target number of GPs by 2025, a key Conservative election manifesto promise.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We do have more GPs in general practice. We have, I think in the last two years since we made that commitment, we have almost 2,000 more in general practice.”
Mr Javid said with Covid-19 becoming the priority for the NHS in the last two years, the target had been not being met. But he also said: “In the last year we have got over 3,000 more doctors, we have got 9,000 more nurses and that is great, and the number of nurses today we have got in the NHS is the highest number ever. We have got more students in medical school than at any other time in our history.”