There are 4.4 million people in England waiting for an NHS operation, the highest total on record, official figures show.

NHS England statistics published on Thursday also showed a 16% rise in the number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks for non-urgent surgery such as a cataract removal, hip or knee replacement in June, compared with the same period last year.

The percentage of patients seen within 18 weeks was 86.3%, the lowest since January 2009, compared with the government’s target of 92%, while the 601,000 people waiting more than 18 weeks on the referral to treatment (RTT) waiting list was the highest since June 2008.

Prof Derek Alderson, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said it was “utterly unacceptable” to have so many patients on waiting lists.

“Although the government has made welcome moves this week to reduce waiting times, by directing more money to hospital infrastructure projects and trying to resolve the pensions issue that has been exacerbating waiting times, there is still a big job ahead,” he said.

“Hospitals need a clear plan for reducing waiting lists over the next five years. Part of this plan has to be increasing hospital beds across the country – at the very least, 3,000 are needed. We also need the staff and resources to run the wards these hospital beds will be on.”

He said surgeons were frustrated that the 18-week target “no longer seems a priority” and were concerned that almost 20,000 operations were cancelled at the last minute between April and June.

The latest NHS performance statistics showed 36,971 patients were waiting more than nine months to start treatment in June and a further 233,479 were waiting longer than six months.

There was some good news in that the number of patients waiting more than a year was down significantly, from 3,516 to 1,089, although, as with the 18-week figures, NHS England said the comparison would be affected by differences in the trusts submitting data in each of the respective periods.

The data also showed a record number of attendances – 2.27m – last month, a 4% increase on the corresponding period last year.

Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust thinktank, attributed the figure to soaring temperatures last month. “The number of people waiting over four hours on trolleys to be admitted was also unusually high for summer at over 57,000 – a figure that would have once been unthinkable, even in the depths of winter,” he said.

“And it’s not just about A&E – sadly these figures show relentless pressure throughout the whole system. More than one in 10 people on the list for planned treatment are now waiting over 18 weeks, the worst level since January 2009, and the key two-month cancer treatment target now hasn’t been met in three-and-a-half years.”

NHS England highlighted the 16.5m completed RTT pathways in the 12 months to June 2019, a 2% increase on the previous 12 months.

A spokesperson said staff had “pulled out all the stops to deal with the record heat and record number of attendees over July, treating the highest number of patients ever within four hours – and on average 2,300 more people a day within four hours than in June”.

They added: “At the same time, a record number of people have benefited from fast cancer checks or treatment for psychosis and eating disorders over the last three months, while millions more people have benefited from routine tests and treatments over the last year.”


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