The number of ‘missing’ patients who were expected to be referred for routine hospital care during the pandemic, but did not come forward, risk inflating the NHS backlog, charity the Health Foundation has warned.
There were around 7.5 million fewer people referred for routine hospital care between January 2020 and July 2021 than would have been expected, according to the charity.
These patients have not yet been added to the backlog figure, which currently stands at around 5.6 million people on waiting lists.
The charity said the lower-than-expected number of people referred for hospital care could be as a result of patients not coming forward for treatment of health concerns, or if they had seen a GP, they may not have been referred yet due to the pressure on hospital services.
Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said: ‘While the government has recently set aside a significant amount of money for tackling the NHS backlog, the scale of the challenge and the number of patients who did not come forward for care during the pandemic mean the waiting list is likely to continue to grow significantly over the next few years.
‘We don’t know when or how many of the missing patients will require NHS care in future, nor what treatment they will need when they do. However, efforts to tackle the elective care backlog will only be effective if the NHS is able to target resources and support towards the patients, services and parts of the country that have been worst affected.’
He added: ‘Covid-19 affected routine hospital services throughout England, but patients living in the most deprived parts of the country experienced more disruption to their diagnosis and treatment than people living elsewhere. As part of its commitment to levelling up, the government needs to ensure people living in deprived areas are not penalised further as part of the NHS recovery.’
It comes as analysis from another charity, The King’s Fund, and Healthwatch England, has found that the people living in the most deprived areas of England are almost twice as likely to experience a wait of more than a year for hospital care, compared to those in the least deprived areas.
The analysis found that more than 7% of patients on waiting lists in the most deprived areas have been waiting a year or more, compared with around 4% in the least deprived areas.
It also found that waiting lists have grown by an average of 55% in the most deprived areas of England between April 2020 and July 2021, compared to 36% increase on average in the least deprived areas.
The survey, commissioned by Healthwatch England, looked at 1,600 British adults currently waiting, or who have a relative waiting for planned treatment.
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at The King’s Fund said: ‘Waits for hospital treatment were already rising before Covid-19. But the pandemic has pushed NHS waiting lists to record levels and laid bare the deep health inequalities in England.
‘It is not a surprise that waits for NHS care vary across England but the fact that patients in deprived areas are nearly twice as likely to wait a year or more for planned treatment should be a wake-up call for a Government that has committed to levelling up the country, and ring alarm bells for MPs in ‘red-wall’ constituencies.
‘The Government’s forthcoming plan to tackle the backlog of care must include a strong focus on tackling health inequalities and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach, otherwise there is a real risk that patients from our most-deprived communities will continue to wait the longest for the treatment they need.’
It comes after concerns that the Government’s plan to cut universal credit and working tax credit at the beginning of October will exacerbate existing regional health inequalities.
Earlier this year, it was warned that an estimated £17bn is needed to clear the backlog, on top of further primary care investment.