According to new research, backlogs on the NHS are disproportionately burdened by people in poor areas, amid a stark warning that waiting lists are likely to “grow exponentially” because millions of people have not sought help during the pandemic.
Waiting lists for routine treatments increased by 50% in the most deprived areas of England, compared to about 35% in the richest areas. Those in disadvantaged areas were twice as likely to wait for those in more affluent areas for more than a year to receive treatment, according to an analysis by the King’s Trust.
The think tank analyzed the backlog of 5.61 million people – roughly one in 10 people in England – who are waiting for treatments such as knee and hip replacements, cataract surgery and other common procedures.
According to research published by BBC Panorama and PA Media, 7% of patients on waiting lists in the most deprived areas have been waiting for treatment for a year or more, compared to 4% in the most affluent areas.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health minister, warned that long waiting lists were in danger of leading to privatization of the NHS.
“The waiting times have gotten so bad that there are people who take out payday loans and sometimes re-mortgage their homes because they can’t stand the pain, the disruption of their lives, or they are afraid of losing theirs,” he said. “This is eroding the basic world order that we have created.”
He told the sidelines of the Labor Conference that it was “such a risk” because “Conservative MPs are already saying that if people choose to opt out of the NHS and the private sector, why don’t we give them a voucher or tax breaks to go into the private sector? And all of a sudden, you’re on a slippery slope to an insurance system” .
A call for the government to take urgent action on waiting times was brought up by King’s Trust and welfare champion, Healthwatch England, which also released a survey showing the toll to people’s physical and mental health from waiting for treatment.
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at King’s Fund, said the pandemic had pushed NHS waiting lists to record levels and “exposed” deep health disparities.
“It is not surprising that waiting times for NHS care vary across the country, but the fact that patients in disadvantaged areas are likely to wait a year or more for a planned treatment should serve as a wake-up call for a government that has a commitment to settling the country, and has sounded alarm bells for MPs. In the circles of the “red wall”.
The Healthwatch England survey of 1,600 people who were on a waiting list or had a loved one in need of treatment found that 54% said it was affecting their mental health. It set out a series of recommendations, calling for “temporary supports” such as physical therapy, pain relief and mental health support, and for the NHS to “reprioritize” treatment if people’s needs change.
The picture of the waiting list’s impact was bolstered by a separate survey by the charity Independent Edge, which found that half of those over 50 on the waiting list said they experience pain daily. The survey of more than 8,000 people over their fifties found 10% of them were stuck in an NHS buildup. Of those, 52% of those waiting for an operation reported experiencing pain every day.
Despite the already dire situation, another leading think tank said the NHS waiting list is likely to “grow significantly” after its analysis indicated that 7.5 million people were sent for hospital care less than expected during the pandemic.
The Health Foundation, which looked at numbers between January 2020 and July 2021, suggested the decline in referrals could be due to a number of reasons: People could have put off seeking care during the pandemic, while others may have seen their doctor. General “but not yet they have been referred due to pressure on hospital services.”