The NHS is performing at its worst in a number of key areas, according to official data released on Thursday that underline the scale of the crisis now facing England’s health service.
The length of the wait for hospital care and delays in A&E departments both hit record highs, the data showed, while a key cancer treatment target was missed by a historically wide margin.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents health organisations across the country, said: “Unprecedented levels of demand, much higher than before the pandemic, continue to put a huge strain on A&E and ambulance services as the NHS faces its toughest ever winter.”
A total of 7.07mn patients were waiting to start non-urgent hospital treatment at the end of September, a record. Only about 60 per cent were seen within 18 weeks of a consultant referral, against a standard of 92 per cent.
More than 401,000 were waiting more than a year before they were treated and almost 2,240 patients waited more than two years, according to the NHS England data.
Against a target that anyone with suspected cancer should be seen by a consultant within two weeks, performance was the worst on record. Just 72.6 per cent were seen within this timeframe, against a target of 93 per cent.
Separately, emergency departments also had their busiest October, with almost 2.2mn attendances. Only just under 70 per cent of patients were seen within four hours in all A&E departments, the worst performance reported since that metric was introduced.
A total of 43,800 patients had to wait more than 12 hours for a hospital bed after a decision had been taken to admit them. Underlining the speed of the deterioration, this compares with 725 in October 2019 and is the highest reported number since the data began to be collected.
Ambulance services were also under huge strain. The NHS said the average ambulance response time in October 2022, for categories 1-3 — category one being the most urgent, “appear [to be] the longest since the categories were introduced nationally in 2017”.
It added that the comparison was complicated because London data were unavailable for last month.
Deakin added that pressure on social care and community services meant that hospitals were struggling to discharge people who were well enough to leave. That had a serious knock-on effect on available beds and admissions, and left ambulances waiting to hand over patients to hospitals, causing further delays.
“To ease pressure on the NHS the government must act now to fix chronic staff shortages and an underfunded social care system,” she added.
Chief executive of Cancer Research UK, Michelle Mitchell, called on Steve Barclay, health and social care secretary, to commit to introducing a long-awaited 10-year cancer plan which should be “both ambitious and fully funded”. She added: “Failure to prioritise cancer will be felt harshly at the next general election.”
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said: “There is no doubt October has been a challenging month for staff who are now facing a tripledemic of Covid, flu and record pressure on emergency services.”
The NHS had always said the overall waiting list would rise as more patients came forward, he added. The health service “has a plan, including a new falls service, 24/7 war rooms and extra beds and call handlers”, Powis said.