In parts of Cheshire, one in five people who need hospital treatment have already spent more than a year on the waiting list.
The figures come as NHS England announces a £160 million scheme to clear the backlog – but a doctors’ group has warned exhausted staff need support to tackle waiting lists.
At the end of March, there were 5,347 people who had already waited more than a year to see a consultant at Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Trust following a GP referral.
That was 21.1 per cent of the 25,342 people on the waiting list.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic means waits for treatment continue to soar.
The number waiting more than a year at the trust has jumped 25.7 per cent in a month, from 4,254 people waiting that long at the end of February.
In March 2020, there were just eight people who had been waiting that long.
At the trust, 46 per cent of people waiting for oral surgery have been waiting more than a year, as have 36 per cent waiting to see consultants in ophthalmology, and 32 per cent waiting for plastic surgery.
Other trusts covering Cheshire are also seeing increasing numbers of year-long waits for treatment.
At East Cheshire NHS Trust, 791 people had been waiting a year at the end of February, 7.8 per cent of the total, and up from 760 in February and five in March 2020.
There were also 877 people on the waiting list for more than a year at Mid Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust, and 1,535 at Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Trust.
Across England, 4.95 million people were on NHS waiting lists at the end of March, up from 4.7 million at the end of February.
Of those, 436,127 had been waiting more than a year, one in 11 on the waiting list.
Numbers waiting more than a year are growing faster than the overall waiting list – jumping from 387,885 at the end of February.
Median waits for routine operations fell last month – from 12.6 weeks last month to 11.6 weeks – which is also significantly down from 19.6 weeks in July.
However, the proportion waiting less than the target time of 18 weeks shrunk slightly in March – down from 64.5 per cent to 64.4 per cent.
NHS England has announced a £160 million initiative to tackle waiting lists by trialling new ways of working in a dozen areas and five specialist children’s hospitals.
The ‘elective accelerators’ will each receive a share of £160 million along with additional support to implement and evaluate innovative ways to increase the number of elective operations they deliver.
Initiatives include a high-volume cataract service, one stop testing facilities, greater access to specialist advice for GPs and pop-up clinics so patients can be seen and discharged closer to home.
Virtual wards and home assessments, 3D eye scanners, at-home antibiotic kits, ‘pre-hab’ for patients about to undergo surgery, AI in GP surgeries and ‘Super Saturday’ clinics – where multi-disciplinary teams come together at the weekend to offer more specialist appointments – will also be trialled.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS Chief Operating Officer, said: “Treating around 400,000 Covid patients over the past year has inevitably had a knock-on effect on non-urgent care, but our incredible staff still managed to perform more than two million operations and other treatments in the first two months of this year when the hospitals were at their busiest with Covid patients.
“With Covid cases in hospitals now significantly reducing thanks to the extraordinary success of the NHS vaccination programme, our focus is now on rapidly recovering routine services.
“Early figures show local teams are already well ahead of schedule, but we want to go further, faster which is why we are investing £160 million to find new ways to tackle waiting lists.”
Indicators suggest operations and other elective activity were already at four fifths of pre-pandemic levels in April, well ahead of the 70 per cent threshold set out in official guidance.
The BMA welcomed the initiative, but said it had calculated that £4 billion was needed to clear the backlog, and plans didn’t acknowledge that the current workforce was too small and exhausted to quickly clear it.
Dr Rob Harwood, BMA consultants’ committee chair, said: “Following the most difficult year many of us have ever faced, we are now heading into another crisis – the number of people on waiting lists at record levels, coupled with exhausted doctors.
“Today’s statistics, showing that nearly five million people are waiting for planned hospital treatment, are a reminder that despite Covid hospitalisations falling, the health service now faces a challenge of almost equal magnitude.
“More than 430,000 people have waited over one year for routine operations but these are not just numbers on a chart, they are people; people who are in pain, who are suffering and who are frustrated.
“As doctors we want to help alleviate this distress and provide the care they need. But in order to do this effectively, there has to be honesty from the Government, with communications aimed at the general public about the real time this will take to work through.”
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