By: 12 August 2021
Surgeons warn waiting lists will continue to grow without investment in surgical hubs and staff

The Royal College of Surgeons of England has warned a ‘volatile mix’ of pressures is affecting the recovery of surgery – high demand in A&E departments, 5,000 patients in hospital with COVID-19 and staff absences due to isolation and delayed annual leave. 

The result is increased waiting times for planned operations. The College says the solution is further government investment in surgical hubs and the staff to support them.  Latest figures show the NHS waiting list has now hit 5.45 million and commentators warn this could double in a year, if action is not taken.

NHS performance data published today shows that there were 5.45 million people on the NHS waiting list in June 2021, the highest number since records began. 5,727 patients have been waiting more than two years for treatment. This is a 46% increase on the previous month (3,927 patients were waiting more than two years for treatment in May 2021). The longest waits are patients waiting for hip and knee replacements, gallbladder removals and hernia operations. Some may be unable to work, or carry out day-to-day tasks while they wait for their operation.

Commenting on the figures, Professor Neil Mortensen, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England said: “The summer is traditionally a quieter time for the NHS, so surgeons had hoped we could catch up on the huge backlog of operations postponed because of COVID-19. However, this summer, the pressure on emergency departments hasn’t let up. A volatile mix of pressures is hindering the surgical recovery.

“With more than 5,000 people in hospital with COVID-19, there is still too much pressure on hospital beds, because these patients must be kept separate and distanced from others. Along with staff shortages caused by the app pinging people, it’s been incredibly difficult for some places to get back to pre-pandemic levels of operating. Areas with surgical hubs have fared better, so we need more investment in this model, and in the staff to support it.

“Waiting lists will continue to grow without significant investment in a more sustainable system, adapted to a country where the virus remains endemic. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently predicted we could see the waiting list grow to 14 million by next autumn. This can’t be allowed to happen – we need a new deal for surgery to restore timely treatment for patients.”