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Covid ‘wrecking ball’ through NHS waiting times

13 Aug 2020

Newly released NHS England waiting times figures show that a ‘wrecking ball’ has been taken to targets for timely treatment, leading surgeons say today.

The number of patients who had waited over 52 weeks in June now stands at over 50,000, and is thirty times higher than in February, before the pandemic.  The number had almost doubled in the course of the month from May to June. 

Meanwhile, nearly half of 3.86m people on the waiting list for NHS treatment have now waited more than 18 weeks for their treatment, representing the worst breach of legal waiting times standards since records began in 2007.

However, there are welcome signs of hospital services turning a corner.  Admissions to hospital from the waiting list fell sharply during the pandemic from 285,819 in February 2020 to only 41,121 in April 2020.  But they are increasing again, with 94,354 taking place in June. 

Referrals fell during the crisis from 1.6m in February to less than half a million in April.  More than 939,000 referrals took place in June, up on the previous month’s figure of 625,320 (May 2020).

Commenting, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Professor Neil Mortensen said:

“COVID has taken a wrecking ball to waiting time targets. By law, 92% of patients are supposed to be seen within 18 weeks, but today’s figures show the worst ever performance on record, with only half of patients getting treatment within this legal timeframe.

“In June most planned surgery was suspended while the country rallied to flatten the first peak of Coronavirus,  so these record waits are understandable.  Nevertheless, each of these numbers represents another patient waiting in need, potentially in pain, for hospital treatment. Long waits have a knock-on effect on patients’ families, their jobs and the wider economy.  It is a real crisis.

“However, there are signs of recovery in the system.  The sharp increase in referrals and rise in admissions to hospital show that normal NHS activity is resuming.  Surgeons, doctors and nurses across the country are switching back to supporting an ever wider range of patients.  Along with NHS managers they are working their socks off to make inroads and tackle the backlog.

“The challenge now is protecting this fragile recovery from a potential  second wave of COVID-19.  That requires the continued establishment of dedicated “COVID-light” sites either within hospitals or on separate ground. 

“In these facilities, staff need to be tested frequently – up to twice a week – and patients must be tested prior to admission, on admission and before they are discharged.

“It is also critical that the test and trace regime in the community continues to grow and improve, to reduce the chances of anyone bringing the virus back into a surgical ward.”


Notes to editors

The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance surgical standards and improve patient care.

For more information, please contact the RCS Press Office:

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