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Fresh blow for Sunak as NHS waiting lists rise for the first time in seven months

The waiting list for routine hospital treatment in England has risen for the first time in seven months in a fresh blow for Rishi Sunak.

An estimated 7.57 million treatments were waiting to be carried out at the end of April, relating to 6.33 million patients – up slightly from 7.54 million treatments and 6.29 million patients at the end of March, NHS England said.

Some 5,013 patients in England had been waiting more than 18 months to start routine treatment at the end of April, up from 4,770 in March.

The Government and NHS England set the ambition of eliminating all waits of more than 18 months by April 2023, excluding exceptionally complex cases or patients who choose to wait longer.

There were 50,397 patients who had been waiting more than 65 weeks to start treatment at the end of April, up from 48,968 in March. The target to eliminate all waits of over 65 weeks is now September 2024, having previously been March 2024.

The list hit a record high in September 2023 with 7.77 million treatments and 6.50 million patients. The latest data will be a headache for the Prime Minister who has repeatedly said during the election debates that the number had been going down in recent months.

Mr Sunak faced anger from the Battle For Number 10’s live audience last night as he appeared to blame the size of NHS waiting lists on junior doctors. The number of patients waiting to be seen by a doctor was at 7.21 million when the Prime Minister made his pledge to cut waiting lists in January 2023.

During the Sky News interview the Prime Minister admitted: “We’ve not made as much progress on cutting waiting lists as I would have liked.”

When pressed on the increase, Mr Sunak said: “I think everyone knows the impact the [junior doctors’] industrial action has had, that’s why we haven’t made as much progress.”

Junior doctors in England have called a five-day strike in the lead-up to the election in their long-running pay dispute with the government. British Medical Association (BMA) members will walk out from 7am on 27 June – a week before election day. The union said it was taking action as there had been no credible new offer after fresh talks started in mid-May.

The latest NHS England figures show the number of people waiting more than 52 weeks to start routine hospital treatment at the end of April has fallen to 302,589, down from 309,300 at the end of March.

However, the number of people waiting more than 12 hours in A&E departments in England from a decision to admit to actually being admitted was 42,555 in May, up slightly from 42,078 in April, the NHS figures show. The record high for a calendar month is 54,573, which occurred in December 2022.

The number waiting at least four hours from the decision to admit to admission also increased, from 134,344 in April to 138,770 in May. Some 74.0 per cent of patients in England were seen within four hours in A&Es last month, down from 74.4 per cent in April.

Some 73.5 per cent of patients in England urgently referred for suspected cancer in April were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days. This is down from 77.3 per cent the previous month and is therefore below the target of 75 per cent.

Cancer Research UK and the Royal College of Radiologists both sounded the alarm on cancer treatment on Thursday with two new reports warning a lack of staff and diagnostic tests were hampering patient care. The RCR pointed to a “staggering” 30 per cent shortfall in clinical radiologists and a 15 per cent shortfall in clinical oncologists – figures which are projected to get worse in the next few years.

GPs in England made 260,108 urgent cancer referrals in April, up from 254,594 in March and also up year-on-year from 218,324 in April 2023. The proportion of patients in England waiting no longer than 62 days in April from an urgent suspected cancer referral or consultant upgrade to their first definitive treatment for cancer was 66.6 per cent, down from 68.7 per cent in March. The target is 85 per cent.

Significant demand for urgent care

NHS England said staff continue to face significant demand for urgent care, with the figures showing that more than 2.4 million people attended A&Es across the country in May – the highest number on record.

The average response time in May for ambulances in England dealing with the most urgent incidents, defined as calls from people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries, was eight minutes and 16 seconds. This is up slightly from eight minutes and 10 seconds in April and is above the target standard response time of seven minutes.

Ambulances took an average of 32 minutes and 44 seconds last month to respond to emergency calls such as heart attacks, strokes and sepsis. This is up from 30 minutes and 22 seconds in April, while the target is 18 minutes.

Response times for urgent calls, such as late stages of labour, non-severe burns and diabetes, averaged exactly two hours in May, up from one hour, 42 minutes and 13 seconds in April.

Tim Gardner, assistant director of policy at think tank the Health Foundation, said: “With both Labour and the Conservatives promising big improvements in NHS waiting times, today’s figures are a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge facing the next government.”

He added that while there has been “some progress” in recent months “there is still a huge mountain to climb”.

Professor Vivien Lees, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, also warned that the “NHS won’t stand a chance of cutting waiting times without significant additional investment”.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, said: “As these figures show, demand for NHS services across the country remains high. May was a record month for urgent and emergency services, with the highest number of A&E attendances as well as being the busiest May for the most urgent ambulance call-outs, while staff delivered a record number of elective appointments for April.”

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