The number of patients waiting too long for routine operations has soared to its highest level in nearly a decade amid warnings the NHS is “sleepwalking into a winter crisis”.
New NHS data shows more than 409,000 people waited longer than the official 18-week target for non-urgent treatment in August, with hundreds languishing on waiting lists for more than a year.
The latest waits are the highest for a single month since September 2008, while the number of patients treated within the flagship NHS target has fallen to its lowest point since March 2011.
It comes amid growing concern that the NHS is facing a strain on services in the summer months normally seen in winter, when poor weather and seasonal flu heap pressure on hospitals and GPs.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt came under pressure from family doctors to admit “how bad the situation is” for NHS staff during a speech to the Royal College of GPs conference in Liverpool.
The raft of new NHS statistics also laid bare strains in other areas as patients faced longer waits in A&E and cancer treatment times had slipped, although bed blocking rates had improved.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), said: “Staff across the NHS are gearing up again for the busy winter period and will remember the stress of enduring the worst winter on record last year, with patients facing unacceptable delays for care.
“We don’t want to see a repeat of that this year, which is why it’s vital the entire health system is supported and working well – from our GP surgeries, to hospital wards, to social care.
“To achieve this, and ensure the NHS is able to cope with the inevitable spike in demand during the winter period, the Government needs to urgently put in place measures to address the funding, capacity and recruitment issues facing the system as a whole.
“Failure to do so will leave the NHS sleepwalking into another, entirely predictable, winter crisis, with patients and the quality of patient care suffering as a result.”
Some 89.7% of patients were seen within four hours in stretched A&E departments in September compared with 90.6% in the same month a year ago, the new figures show.
Half of NHS hospital trusts missed vital cancer targets requiring patients to begin treatment within 62 days of doctors suspecting the disease.
However, bed blocking rates have improved as patients spent 180,065 extra days waiting to be discharged from hospital in August, compared to 187,851 the previous year.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the “shocking” figures showed how the winter crisis had extended to the rest of the year, prompting concerns over patient wellbeing.
He added: “NHS patients are now paying the price of Tory underinvestment all year round, with thousands left stranded on trolleys or waiting to be seen in overcrowded, understaffed A&E units.”
Earlier, Mr Hunt told GPs there was no “silver bullet” to the problems facing them but the Government was “absolutely committed” to increasing funding and capacity.
NHS England boss Simon Stevens also warned MPs this week that the health service would be forced to make cuts without an emergency bailout in next month’s Budget.
He told the Commons Health Select Committee that the funding pencilled in for the next two years looked “extremely challenging” for the NHS.
Responding to the latest figures, an NHS England spokesman said: “While it’s good to see that A&E 4-hour performance year to date has stabilised at 90.2% – ending the annual declines seen in recent years – the whole of the NHS is mobilising for what could be a tough winter.
“Important new action on flu, on delayed hospital discharges, and on more A&E consultants is all being announced today.”
Senior health officials have urged all NHS staff to have flu jabs this winter to help cope if a major flu outbreak hits over the colder months.
The move comes as NHS England, Public Health England, the Department of Health and NHS Improvement announced that thousands of care home staff would receive the jab free of charge this year as part of a £10m scheme.