The NHS is on a collision course as it heads into winter with waiting lists for routine operations at an all-time high, experts have warned.
A damning report showed more than 4.41million patients were stuck on waiting lists in England in August – up by 250,000 from last year.
And 662,053 people have waited more than 18 weeks for routine treatments, such as joint replacements – the highest since records began.
Health leaders have condemned the figures and said they show the NHS could face its worst winter ever with Brexit, harsh weather conditions and flu on the horizon.
NHS bosses said trusts up and down the country are working ‘incredibly hard’ to prepare for the winter and make sure patients are kept safe.
But the Royal College of Nursing fears more and more patients are going to be treated in corridors as pressure gets piled on the health service.
A damning NHS report has shown more than 4.41million patients were stuck on waiting lists in England in August – up by 250,000 from last year and 1.1m in 2015
It also revealed 662,053 people have waited more than 18 weeks for routine but important treatments, such as joint replacements – more than double the number in 2015
And the Royal College of Surgeons warned the upcoming winter pressure, Brexit and the NHS pension crisis will create a ‘perfect storm’ for hospitals this winter.
Experts called for ‘swift and far-reaching’ Government action to get the NHS braced for winter.
The waiting times refer to patients who are waiting for routine but important operations such as joint replacements.
Those included in the 4.41million are the ones who have been referred for surgery by a specialist but have not yet had the procedure.
That figure is up by 250,000 from the same time last year and 1.1million from August 2017.
Cancer charity Macmillan slammed the ‘unacceptable’ figures, which also showed a record number of cancer patients were forced to wait more than two weeks for a referral.
The latest data showed 21,191 people suspected of having the killer disease were not seen by a specialist for over a fortnight – the lowest on record.
In August, just 89.4 per cent of people who were thought to be battling cancer were referred within 14 days.
That’s 3.6 per cent short of the NHS’ 93 per cent target for two-week cancer referrals and the lowest since it was introduced in 2008. February was the only month in 2019 in which the target was met.
A&E departments are also feeling the strain as backed-up hospital beds make it harder for them to find places to put new patients, so leave them waiting on temporary beds known as ‘trolleys’.
Cancer charity Macmillan slammed the ‘unacceptable’ figures, which also showed a record number of cancer patients were forced to wait more than two weeks for a referral
Official figures show there were a total of 121,420 trolley waits of more than four hours in August and September this year. The figure is nearly treble that from four years ago.
British Medical Association (BMA) council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘The NHS has just experienced its worst-ever summer – this is incredibly alarming and should be taken as a serious warning sign of the chaos that is likely to unfold in the NHS this coming winter.
‘With summer performance now as bad as recent winters, we have reached a point of year-round crisis and the Government cannot continue to let this happen.
‘Patient care is suffering, NHS staff working tirelessly around the clock are suffering, and with Brexit on the horizon and early indicators of an extremely cold winter, we are on a collision course for what is likely to be the worst winter ever.
BRITAIN FACES DIFFICULT FLU SEASON DUE TO UNPRECEDENTED OUTBREAK THAT HAS ROCKED AUSTRALIA
The worrying waiting times figures come as the country braces for a severe flu outbreak over winter.
Almost 293,000 flu cases have been recorded in Australia so far in 2019, with the outbreak beginning to take hold in March.
Australia’s flu season usually lasts begins in May and lasts until October, with their outbreaks normally peaking in August.
In comparison, there were less than 230,000 confirmed reports of influenza by the same time point – until the end of September – in 2017.
That year’s outbreak was the same that saw the rise of ‘Aussie flu’, after the country was rocked by a strain that eventually made it to the UK.
Most of the Australian cases confirmed by laboratory tests earlier this summer – 57 per cent – were shown to be an unknown type of influenza A.
Leading experts warned earlier in June that it is likely the UK will have an equally bad winter, saying the outbreak is ‘very scary’.
The flu season in the UK and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere tends to mirror what has happened in the Southern Hemisphere.
The same strains of the virus will circulate north in time for the British flu season, which typically begins in November and lasts until March.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, said at the time: ‘The spike in flu we are seeing in Australia could be a worrying signal of what is to come for health and care services this winter.
‘Planning for vaccinations is based on what happens in the southern hemisphere.’ Australia’s flu season peaks in July and August.
‘This is a serious plea – we need to see investment across the board including community and social care, and resources such as more beds, reaching the frontline now.’
Patricia Marquis, England’s director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: ‘Nurses treating patients in corridors belongs in the past.
‘But signs so far suggest that such scenes will become more, not less, commonplace as we head towards Christmas.’
And she warned the shortage of 43,000 nurses across England could harm patients and threaten the mental wellbeing of nurses themselves.
Ms Marquis said: ‘Before winter and the annual onset of flu has truly begun these latest figures paint a picture of a health service already running to catch up with demand.’
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers – a body that represents all trusts – said the figures show just how much pressure they are under.
She added that trusts are working ‘incredibly hard’ to prepare for the winter but there is a strong chance the demand will only grow and leave patients waiting longer for treatment.
Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust thinktank, called for an ‘urgent plan’ to fix the staffing shortage across the NHS.
She said: ‘Today’s NHS performance statistics reveal very starkly the pressure facing the NHS and the impact this has on more and more patients.
‘Without a sufficient and urgent plan for solving the workforce crisis, these targets will continue to go in a worse direction and patients will suffer as a result.’
Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: ‘The NHS has had a difficult enough time dealing with winter pressures over the last few years.
‘Throw into the mix the pensions crisis, which is leading many senior clinicians to cut back on extra work, and the uncertainty of how Brexit might affect the flow of medicines and medical devices coming into the UK, and the NHS could face a “perfect storm” this winter.
‘Gone are the years where NHS hospitals had the staff and time to recover over the summer months in preparation for the busy winter period.
‘Today’s performance figures show waiting times continued to deteriorate over the summer. We need swift and far-reaching government action to get the NHS shipshape for winter.’
Professor Alderson added: ‘Behind every statistic is a patient in pain and distress. The facts speak for themselves.’
Moira Fraser-Pearce, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: ‘It is unacceptable that record numbers of patients are now missing out on the two-week referral target.
‘This demonstrates how critical it is that the Government addresses the NHS workforce crisis as an urgent priority.
‘Targets will only continue to be breached if the government doesn’t take action to grow and sustain the numbers of NHS staff.’