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NHS England elective care waiting list hits 7.6 million amid election campaigns

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NHS waiting list reduction efforts show limited impact despite government pledges

The elective care waiting list for NHS England has soared to a staggering 7.6 million, marking a critical juncture as the health service struggles to meet standards since February 2016 and ambulance and A&E waiting times have not been met since 2020/21 and 2015 respectively.

The revelation, detailed in a new report by the Health Foundation, underscores the immense pressure on the NHS and positions healthcare as a pivotal issue in the upcoming general election.

According to the report, the waiting list crisis has become a central point of contention between the major political parties.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have pledged to tackle the growing backlog, which includes waiting times for both elective and emergency care.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had vowed to reduce NHS waiting lists in January 2023, but despite a slight decrease from the peak of 7.8 million in September 2023, the numbers remain alarmingly high.

“While the government has blamed the relative lack of progress on industrial action”, an analysis by the Health Foundation suggests it “accounts for less than 3 per cent of the overall waiting list and is only responsible for half of the growth in the waiting list between March and October 2023.”

The findings of the analysis attribute the crisis to multiple factors beyond industrial action by NHS staff.

They point to chronic issues such as hospital capacity constraints, delayed patient discharges and increased lengths of hospital stays, underinvestment, and systemic inefficiencies as factors for the rise in wait times for the patients.

The report also highlights that these problems are more pronounced in deprived areas, where patients face even longer waits for treatment.

Over 302,000 patients have been waiting more than a year for treatment with an average waiting time of 13.9 weeks as of April 2024.

Moreover, disparities in waiting times are stark, with patients waiting time in Brighton and Hove is 21.6 weeks, while in South Tyneside it is 9.2 weeks.

In May 2024, England’s urgent and emergency care services reported average response times of 8 minutes 16 seconds for life-threatening Category 1 ambulance calls and 32 minutes 44 seconds for urgent Category 2 calls.

A&E performance stood at 72.1 per cent of patients treated within 4 hours, with 439,411 patients enduring over 12-hour waits due to system pressures.

Call for reform 

The report also noted that public dissatisfaction with the NHS is at an unprecedented high, adding to the urgency for political leaders to propose effective solutions.

As the election approaches, the next government faces an unprecedented task of revitalizing the country’s health service, which has been strained to its limits by ongoing crises worsened by the pandemic.

The report calls for a comprehensive reform in critical areas such as prolonged ambulance response times, overwhelmed A&E departments, and extensive patient waiting periods highlight the urgent need for comprehensive reform.

Proposed solutions emphasise optimising existing healthcare capacity, fostering innovation, and ensuring sustained long-term investment.

With public expectations soaring, proactive measures in health promotion and disease prevention emerge as vital components of a sustainable reform agenda.

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