The NHS waiting list in England could rise to 14 million by autumn next year and keep increasing, a new report has warned.
If millions of patients who did not receive care during the pandemic return to the health service for medical attention, then the number joining the waiting list could outstrip the number being treated, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said.
The research organisation has done modelling in an effort to show the potential scale of the waiting list challenge ahead.
Last month Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned that NHS waiting lists in England could rocket to 13 million.
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph a few weeks after being appointed to the role, Mr Javid said what had “shocked me the most” was “when I was told that the waiting list is going to get a lot worse before it gets better”.
He said: “Hearing that figure of 13 million, it has absolutely focused my mind and it’s going to be one of my top priorities to deal with because we can’t have that.”
The IFS warned the number could top this figure if most of the approximately seven million so-called “missing” patients return to the health service for care over the next year.
It said: “In our first scenario, 80% of the approximately seven million ‘missing’ patients return over the next year, the NHS operates at 90% of its 2019 capacity this year and next, and then at 100% capacity from 2023 onwards.
“Under this scenario, waiting lists would soar to 14 million by the autumn of 2022 and then continue to climb, as the number joining the waiting list exceeds the number being treated.”
Using different modelling on the number of patients likely to return for treatment and the capacity at which the health service operates, the IFS said that under even its most optimistic scenario the number of people waiting for treatment would rise to over nine million in 2022, and only return to pre-pandemic levels in 2025.
The organisation said this outcome would require the NHS to increase capacity by 5% this year and next, compared with 2019, and then by 10% in 2023 and beyond.
Max Warner, a research economist at the IFS and an author of the analysis, said: “More than four million people were on an NHS waiting list even before the pandemic.
“Covid-19 has only made matters worse, as millions of people have missed out on treatment and millions more haven’t even been referred onto the waiting list to begin with.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “This analysis should be a wake-up call for ministers.
“It’s unacceptable that so many patients are waiting longer in pain and distress for vital treatment including cancer care.”
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