Almost 14 million people could be on the NHS waiting list in England by next autumn, new analysis suggests.
Currently, the number of people waiting to start routine hospital treatment is at a record high – 5.3 million, according to latest figures.
But the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned in its new report that there is a massive backlog of people still to come forward for treatment, largely caused by COVID-19.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the number of people on waiting lists could rise to 13 million in the coming months, but the IFS projects that the total could eventually surpass the health secretary’s figure.
“In our first scenario, 80% of the approximately seven million ‘missing’ patients return over the next year, the NHS operates at 90% of its 2019 capacity this year and next, and then at 100% capacity from 2023 onwards,” it says.
“Under this scenario, waiting lists would soar to 14 million by the autumn of 2022 and then continue to climb, as the number joining the waiting list exceeds the number being treated.”
The IFS said while it is unlikely all patients will return due to the fact some will have died and others might have had private treatment, most will probably require treatment at some point soon, especially as virus cases decrease and “people are more willing to seek health care”.
Max Warner, the author of the analysis, said: “There is a real risk that if the NHS cannot find effective ways to boost its capacity – a challenge at the best of times, let alone after a major pandemic – then much longer waiting lists will be with us for years to come.”
In light of the IFS data, the Royal College of Nursing’s England director said the government should invest in the workforce to address to “looming waiting list crisis”.
Patricia Marquis said: “A significant pay rise will demonstrate value and help retain experienced nursing staff whom health services can’t afford to lose with this challenge ahead.”
And shadow health secretary Johnathan Ashworth said the analysis “should be a wake-up call for ministers”.
“Years of underfunding and cuts to healthcare had already left our NHS with ballooning waiting lists before the pandemic hit,” he said.
“Given these warnings, it’s now even more urgent that a long-term rescue plan is put in place to give the NHS the resources and staff it needs to bring down waiting lists and reducing waiting times for treatment.”