Concerns that the NHS waiting list could reach and exceed 13 million people are ‘well within the realms of possibility’, new analysis has suggested.
A modelling tool, constructed and posted online by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (8 August), revealed that preventing the Covid backlog extending to 13 million ‘crucially’ depends on the NHS’ ability to expand its capacity.
‘If that proves impossible, waiting lists could indeed rise to 13 million – or even higher,’ it cautioned.
Currently, the number of people waiting for treatment is estimated to sit at around 5.3 million.
Last month, Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s told The Sunday Telegraph that Government officials warned him the backlog could more than double.
The Institute said: ‘This tool allows you to explore how the waiting list might evolve under various assumptions, and to understand the conditions under which Mr Javid’s 13 million figure could arise.’
It explained that NHS waiting lists have grown by ‘less than a million’ since the start of the pandemic, despite there being 3 million fewer planned admissions and 17 million fewer outpatient appointments in the first ten months of the pandemic alone.
This because 7 million fewer people joined the waiting list between March 2020 and May 2021, with the ability to manage the waiting list depending on how many of the 7 million ‘missing’ patients come forward for treatment, it said.
It added that even if only two-thirds of the missing patients return, and with NHS capacity at 95% of pre-pandemic levels, waiting lists could easily exceed 13 million and continue to grow from there.
Max Warner, one of the authors of the analysis, said: ‘There is a real risk that if the NHS cannot find effective ways to boost its capacity – a challenge at the best of times, let alone after a major pandemic – then much longer waiting lists will be with us for years to come.’
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, described the possibility of the backlog stretching to 13 million as a ‘nightmare scenario’.
She said that the upcoming spending review this autumn is an opportunity to ensure the NHS is well funded to meet pandemic-related costs.
‘In the more immediate term, however, the government must allocate enough funding to continue vital programmes such as discharge to assess,’ she said.
‘In the short term, alongside other organisations, we have written to Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak, calling for £600 million for discharge to assess for the second half of the year, so that people who are medically fit can easily and safely leave hospital, reducing the risk they will have to stay longer and delay treatment for others.’
Chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said it is too soon to tell how great a challenge tackling the backlog will be, given how pent-up demand is still emerging.
‘That is why it is so important that the government acts urgently to protect and strengthen NHS capacity as it deals with pressures on multiple fronts,’ he said.
A recent study revealed that as many as three-quarters (73%) of trust leaders are concerned that their plans to address the care backlog will be disrupted by anticipated winter pressures.
Meanwhile, the Government’s new Health and Care Bill has been criticised for not appropriately focusing on workforce planning and other measures to reduce the backlog, instead interfering in the day-to-day management of the NHS.