More could suffer with worsening conditions at home, experts warn, after a 30 per cent drop in GP referrals for non-urgent care last year
NHS faces ‘hidden backlog’ of six million patients awaiting treatment due to pandemic
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The NHS is facing a “hidden backlog” of six million patients who have not come forward for treatment because of the pandemic, health leaders have warned.
Increasing numbers are likely to suffer with worsening conditions at home unless the Government produces a comprehensive plan to deal with the problem, according to new research by the NHS Confederation.
The body, which represents all parts of the health service, cited a 30 per cent drop in GP referrals for non-urgent care last year.
They are particularly concerned about the reduction in referrals for orthopaedics and ophthalmology, both of which are clinical areas with conditions that can steadily worsen if left untreated.
The pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to NHS services, with elective treatment the hardest hit.
Despite caring for nearly a quarter of a million Covid patients in 2020, the health service still performed more than six million elective treatments.
However, there was a backlog of 4.52 million patients by the end of the year, 224,000 of whom had been waiting for more than a year for treatment.
This compared to 1,500 at the end of 2019.
The NHS Confederation today warns that without corrective action the unofficial backlog will be close to seven million by the end of 2021.
Danny Mortimer, its chief executive, said: “The NHS has worked tirelessly to support the country in response to the pandemic and while it has never been a Covid-only service, the disruption has been enormous, leading to a considerable number of people waiting far longer for treatment than the NHS would ever want.
“Health leaders are concerned that we may be scratching the surface of this waiting list if further referrals come through at a time when coronavirus pressures are still high, the workforce is in a very fragile state, and when capacity is still so constrained.”
he report comes days after it emerged the Government favours a one per cent pay rise for nurses and most NHS doctors.
Staffing representatives have reacted furiously to the proposal, although ministers say it is better than the pay freeze imposed across much of the public sector.
Mr Mortimer said it was “something of a shock” that the Chancellor did not set out plans to remedy the state of the NHS in last Wednesday’s Budget.
“The Government now needs to level with the public on the scale of the challenge facing the NHS and step up with a strategy that will work with all parts of the service to tackle the waiting list in a safe, fair and patient-focused way,” he said.
“Despite everything the NHS is doing, without a comprehensive new plan, the Government faces the politically unacceptable legacy of hundreds of thousands of patients left with deteriorating conditions for the remainder of the parliament.”
As well as delays to elective treatments, experts are increasingly worried about the impact on cancer services of the pandemic.
Despite promises at the start of the crisis that patients would be unaffected, more than three million people in the UK have missed cancer screenings as a result of Covid.
A recent study suggested that NHS hospitals were wrong to tell cancer patients to postpone treatment during the first wave, as even those who were immunocompromised had a better chance of survival by continuing with their treatment than postponing it, even if they caught Covid.