By: Natasha Bougourd
COVID-19 has had a huge and far-reaching impact on our NHS. Frontline staff worked tirelessly to support COVID-19 patients, as well as delivering as many critical services as possible.
Some key services are experiencing a backlog, with over 5 million people waiting to start treatment – a record number. This number could even reach 13 million in the coming months.
Here, we take a look at the impact of COVID-19 on NHS waiting times and explore some alternatives if this is impacting you.
Which procedures are backlogged?
Most of the procedures that are backlogged are “routine”, which includes non-urgent surgery and consultant-led appointments. They address treatments that aren’t life-threatening but are still important to many of us.
The backlog of treatments is a result of many of these services being suspended during multiple lockdowns to prioritise urgent healthcare. Additionally, many patients didn’t seek care for non-critical problems during the height of the pandemic.
Analysis from the Health Foundation has shown a number of drops in routine appointments, including:
- 41% reduction in referrals for eye-related problems, including cataract surgery and glaucoma treatment
- 42% fewer appointments for musculoskeletal problems, including knee or hip surgery
- 43% reduction in oral surgeries, including tooth extractions and root canal surgery
- 29% fewer appointments for neurology issues, including stroke and headache-related problems.
In total, 4.7 million fewer people were referred for these types of routine appointments and others in 2020 than in 2019.
What do the waiting lists look like for routine appointments?
The figures on the number of people waiting over a year for treatment vary by report. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that over 385,000 people had been waiting for more than a year for treatment, up from just 1,600 before the pandemic. The BMA reports these figures as 304,803 in June 2021, increasing from 1,032 in June 2020. Over 3 million have been waiting between 18 weeks and a year, according to NHS data.
Procedures that are most likely to have waiting lists longer than the NHS standard 18-week window include:
- Oral surgery
- Ear, nose, and throat appointments
- Eye condition treatments
The IFS stated that to deal with the backlog, the NHS needed increased capacity.
The NHS is making good progress on its backlog of treatments, but waiting times are still high for some. The number of people waiting over a year decreased by over 10,000 between June and July 2021, but this still leaves over 5 million people waiting.
As well as the known backlog due to delayed or cancelled treatments, new referrals are likely to increase again because people are more comfortable seeking medical appointments now that restrictions have relaxed. The Health Foundation refers to this as the “hidden backlog”.
What can you do if you’re waiting a long time?
It’s clear that the NHS needs additional support to tackle the huge backlog it’s facing. The government has announced extra funding dedicated to helping the NHS reduce its backlog, but it’s already reported to be operating at 95% capacity.
To avoid the long waiting list for routine surgery or treatments, there are other routes you can consider. Private health insurance is a viable option. Traditional private medical insurance can be costly, but alternative private health insurance options operate slightly differently to keep costs lower for users.
These options don’t cover areas prioritised by the NHS, like cancer and heart disease, in order to keep premiums low. Private health insurance is more accessible for many and allows you to access treatment for health conditions that aren’t life-threatening but are having an impact on your life.
Not only can private health insurance help you access private treatment for non-urgent conditions more quickly than on the NHS, but you could also be helping to ease pressure on the health service. With fewer patients to treat, the NHS can address its backlog faster.
Is private insurance right for you?
Even with a concerted effort from the NHS, it’s likely that we’ll be living with longer waiting times for non-urgent surgery in the long term. If you’re worried about the impact this could have, private health insurance could help give you peace of mind.
Most providers will give you an instant quote so you can decide if it fits within your monthly budget. With most policies, the process is simple too. You make a GP appointment to get a referral as you normally would, then get in touch with your provider, who’ll assess your claim and arrange your appointment and payments. Some providers will even allow you to choose which hospital you attend.
The NHS has been under extreme pressure for over 18 months now. While it has rightly focused on treating COVID-19 patients and life-threatening emergencies, more patients than ever are experiencing longer waiting times for routine appointments. In addition to the NHS receiving more support to address this backlog, you may be able to seek out affordable private health insurance to skip the queues, receive treatment quicker, and support the NHS in addressing its backlog.