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‘Grim milestone reached’ as total waiting list exceeds 5 million

10 Jun 2021

  • Two-year waits reported for the first time, in the wake of COVID-19

The Royal College of Surgeons of England today urged the government to make waiting times their top priority, as new figures show the NHS waiting list has surpassed 5 million for the first time ever. 

For the first time too, NHS England’s ‘referral to treatment’ data records people waiting over two years for hospital treatment, in the wake of COVID-19. The stats, for April 2021, report:

  • A record 5.12 million people waiting for hospital treatment
  • For the first time the statistics show some patients are waiting more than two years for treatment, in the wake of COVID-19. Across England, 2,722 people are waiting two years or more.  The most common long waits are for trauma and orthopaedic treatment (516 people) followed by general surgery patients (312), such as gallbladder and hernia operations. 246 people were waiting two years or more for Ear, Nose or Throat treatment.

Mr Tim Mitchell, Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said:

“Today we have sadly reached the grim milestone in England of more than 5 million people on the NHS hospital waiting list. Really long waits of more than a year, and in some cases more than two years, are particularly troubling. These are people waiting for operations like hip and knee replacements, or ear, nose and throat surgery. This is life-changing surgery we’re talking about. Operations that can help people get back to work, that relieve pain and mean people can enjoy a decent quality of life again. 

“Surgery in many hospitals is almost at pre-pandemic levels, thanks to staff working Saturdays and evenings to catch up. Even though many of them are exhausted from the experience of the last year. Tackling this gigantic backlog requires new investment both in staff and infrastructure. The NHS needs a ‘New Deal for Surgery’. We are calling for the creation of specialist surgical hubs in every region, and a 5-year funding plan that extends the ‘Elective Recovery Fund’. There is no quick fix, but we must aim to get back to delivering timely surgery. Government needs to make waiting times their top priority, and allocate funding both for surgical hubs and to training and supporting more surgeons, nurses and anaesthetists.”

The College’s New Deal report, published last month, urges the government to commit an additional £1bn for surgery every year for the next five years. It also urges adoption of a longer-term aim to increase the number of hospital beds and doctors to reach the OECD average.

Notes to editors

  1. Full, historical NHS England Consultant-led Referral to Treatment Waiting Times can be found here:


  2. The College’s ‘New Deal for Surgery’ Report can be viewed here: Action Plan for the Recovery of Surgical Services in England (May 2021) — The Royal College of Surgeons of England (


  3. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance patient care. We support over 28,000 members in the UK and internationally by improving their skills and knowledge, facilitating research and developing policy and guidance. 


  4. For more information, please contact the Press Office: Tel. 0207 869 6052/6047; email: For out-of-hours media enquiries, please telephone: 0207 869 6056.


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