Year-long waits for treatment soared as hospital beds filled with Covid-19 patients in January – there are now more than 10,000 people facing long waits in Essex.

Latest data published by NHS England shows that 10,129 people have been waiting for more than a year for elective hospital treatment, such as hip and knee operations at hospital trusts in Essex at the end of January. That figure has jumped from 8,051 at the end of December.

It is also a significant increase from 181 in January 2020 and 286 at the end of March last year, as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic first started to be felt. It means that one in 16 of the 159,645 people on hospital waiting lists in the area have been on there for more than a year.

The aim is for 92 per cent of people to wait less than 18 weeks for treatment.

At trusts across Essex, the proportion waiting less than 18 weeks averaged 64.1 per cent at the end of January.

The Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow

The Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow

NHS statistics show 1,177 patients listed for elective operations or treatment at The Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust at the end of February had been waiting for at least a year – 6 per cent of all those on the waiting list.

This was a huge increase from none the year before, and the highest figure for the month of February since comparable records began in 2012 – though data was unavailable for one year.

Overall, 18,642 people were waiting to start hospital treatment at the Princess Alexandra Hospital Trust at the end of February – an increase of 16 per cent on February 2020.

The number of people waiting this long across England has risen to 387,900 – the highest total since December 2007, and almost 250 times that of February 2020.

Across England, the number of people waiting more than a year for treatment reached 304,044 at the end of January.

That was up more than a third in a month from 224,205 in December, and compared to 1,643 in January last year, and 3,097 in March 2020.

Read more: March sees rise in A&E visits at Princess Alexandra Hospital

More than 100,000 patients seriously ill with the virus needed hospital admission for treatment in January – a third of all those who had been admitted, up to that point, since the start of the pandemic.

While routine care was hit this January, compared to the previous year, the impact was less than in April.

Stephanie Lawton, chief operating officer at The Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, said: “All urgent treatment and surgery continues to go ahead and we are committed to supporting all our patients to receive treatment as soon as possible.

“Throughout the pandemic we have ensured all patients have the opportunity to discuss plans for their care with their clinician and we continue to treat patients in order of clinical priority. We thank our patients for their support and understanding.”

Professor Stephen Powis, the national medical director for the NHS in England, said: “Admitting more than 100,000 Covid patients to hospital in a single month inevitably had a knock-on effect on some non-urgent care.

“However, thanks to the hard work of NHS staff and the innovations in treatment and care developed over the course of the pandemic, hospitals treated more than one million people with other conditions in January, at the peak of the winter wave, nearly twice as many as they did last April.

“That is a testament to the skill, dedication and commitment nurses, doctors, therapists and countless other staff showed in the most challenging period in NHS history.”

In January, 961,596 people were admitted for treatment. That was down by a third compared to 1.5 million treated in January 2020. However, it compares to 567,221 people treated in April last year.

The Nuffield Trust said the strain of the backlog on patients should not be underestimated, but added it is no surprise given the intense pressure of Covid-19 hospitalisations.

Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the organisation, said healthcare staff have made huge sacrifices during the pandemic, but more will be asked of them.

She added: “It is clear that the NHS has been set back years as it faces a battle to clear these major backlogs of postponed care.

"Returning to the levels of activity seen before March last year will not be enough to meet demand, and we will continue to live with coronavirus for years to come."

The BMA has called on the Government to put more resources and support – rather than extra pressure – into addressing the backlog of care.

The NHS Staff Survey shows 44 per cent of NHS reporting feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress in the past year, up from 40.3 per cent in 2019.

There were drops in the proportion who said they look forward to going to work and who were enthusiastic about their jobs.

Dr Rob Harwood, BMA consultants committee chair, said: “These findings underline the intense pressure NHS staff have been under this last year, and the severe impact that this has had on their health and wellbeing.

“As today’s performance statistics show the enormous challenge facing the NHS workforce in terms of tackling the backlog of care – with the number of people waiting longer than a year for treatment at a record high and cancer waiting times continuing to rise – a further loss of staff would be devastating for patient care.

“Rather than placing further expectation and demand on an already exhausted and burnt out workforce, the Government must be forthcoming with the additional resource and support – including a fair pay deal – to ensure staff can manage, and take the rest and breaks they need and are entitled to.”

The Government has said that hospitals had got back to carrying out more than 1.2 million routine appointments and operations per week in December, with over three times the levels of elective patients admitted to hospital in April, at the height of the first wave.

The approach remains to make full use of available capacity, both in the NHS and in contracted independent hospitals, to maintain elective activity as far as possible.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS is open for all who need it, and dedicated staff have helped millions of non-Covid patients throughout the pandemic, with 1.2 million routine appointments and operations in December alone.

“We supported the NHS with an additional £63 billion last year, with an extra £29 billion this year including £1 billion this year to help address the elective backlog.

“Average waiting times for elective treatment have fallen by 40% since July and we will continue to work with the NHS to ensure all patients receive the best quality care as quickly as possible.”

Nick Hulme, Chief Executive of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT), said: “Our teams are working incredibly hard in our hospitals and the community for all our patients and we are doing everything we can to care for people as safely and quickly as possible.

“This includes prioritising those with the most urgent clinical needs first and by using virtual appointments more widely. We are also looking to create extra capacity for treatments with longer days, more weekend working and by working with the private sector and other partners where we can.”

Mid and South Essex temporarily paused some non-urgent elective procedures while responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has now restarted parts of its elective surgery programme.

Urgent procedures, including cancer care, have continued throughout the


A spokesperson for Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Our staff have worked tirelessly to treat people for non-Covid reasons throughout the pandemic and we are doing everything we can to reschedule other non-urgent appointments as soon as possible, in order of clinical need.”