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5 years since NHS has met 18-week waiting times target

15 Apr 2021

The Royal College of Surgeons of England is calling for investment on a scale last seen in the 2000s, to get back on track meeting NHS waiting time standards.

NHS waiting times statistics published today, show the NHS has not met the legal 18 week standard for hospital treatment, for five years. Only 64.5% of patients in February waiting for hospital treatment were treated within 18 weeks in February, against the Government’s target of 92%. In total 387,885 people are now waiting over 18 weeks.

The 18 week target, introduced by the Blair administration in the 2000s to bring down hospital waiting times, was last achieved five years ago under David Cameron’s government, in February 2016.  While performance understandably took a nose-dive this winter because of COVID, surgeons are pointing out there were symptoms well before the pandemic, and this ‘chronic’ problem now needs ‘long-term treatment’.

Today’s stats show the total waiting list for hospital treatment is a record 4.7 million people – the highest the figure has been since records began in 2007. Within that, almost 400,000 people were waiting more than 52 weeks for hospital treatment, such as hip and knee replacements, ear, nose or throat surgery.  This compares to just 1,643 people waiting over a year in February 2020. There were also over 1 million patients waiting longer than six months for hospital treatment in February 2021.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England has pointed out that surgery lacked the resource it needed even before COVID, and is calling for a New Deal for surgery to get back on track. 

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

“The NHS had a brutal start to the year because of the second wave of COVID-19, and this is reflected in today’s figures. Although we did see the number of patients with COVID-19 decline in February, hospitals were still under huge pressure due to having to separate COVID and non-COVID care, staff having to isolate or being ill with the virus, and the massive resource needed to support the essential national vaccination effort.  

“Although the most urgent operations, for cancer and life-threatening conditions, went ahead, hundreds of thousands of patients waiting for routine surgery such as hip and knee operations, cochlear implants and vascular operations had their treatment cancelled or postponed.

“387,885 patients have now been waiting over a year for planned treatment. That is a year of uncertainty, pain, and isolation. People have been patient as they’ve seen the battering the pandemic has given the NHS, but how much longer can they be expected to wait? 

“Hitting the inauspicious milestone of a half a decade since the Government’s 18-week target for planned treatment was last met, reminds us the NHS’ capacity problem predates the pandemic. We already had too few beds and not enough staff to keep wider services, such as planned operations, going through hard winters and flu outbreaks.

“The symptoms were there even before the pandemic, but the problem has now become ‘chronic’, and needs ‘long-term treatment’. As we try to get the NHS back on its feet, we must consider how to future-proof our health service, so that vital and life-changing operations can continue, no matter what comes our way.  We need a New Deal for Surgery, with investment on a scale last seen in the 2000s, to get back on track meeting NHS waiting time standards.”


Notes to editors

1. In June 2004, the Blair government published ‘NHS improvement plan: putting people at the heart of public services.’ This stated that by 2008, no one would have to wait longer than 18 weeks from GP referral to hospital treatment, and most people would experience much shorter waits, with even quicker access in priority areas such as cancer.  The 18 week standard was enshrined into the NHS Constitution, and Trusts continue to report performance monthly against it.

2. The Referral to Treatment [RTT] figures are published here: 

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 25,000 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; email: For out-of-hours media enquiries, please telephone: 0207 869 6056.


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