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How does the NHS waiting list work, and why is it so high?

NHS England figures have made hard reading for a government determined to cut waiting times  (Jeff Moore / PA Wire)
NHS England figures have made hard reading for a government determined to cut waiting times (Jeff Moore / PA Wire)

NHS waiting lists have risen to their highest record yet, with nearly 7.75 million people awaiting treatment.

New NHS data suggests that more than 70,000 people had been added to the waitlist in August, up from 7.68 million in July.

This is believed to be the highest number of patients awaiting treatment in UK NHS hospitals since records began in August 2007.

The prime minister admitted last month that his ambition to cut waiting lists was now “very hard” after the release of NHS England figures showed the task he was up against.

Rishi Sunak had previously made cutting waiting lists one of his priorities for 2023, pledging in January that “lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly”.

Labour has attacked the Government over the performance of the NHS.

How many people are on the NHS waiting list 2023?

There were an estimated 7.75 million people waiting to start treatment at the end of August, up from 7.57 million in June, according to NHS England.

The latest data confirms that 396,643 patients were waiting more than 52 weeks to receive treatment.

A further 265 cases have been waiting more than 104 weeks (almost two years) for treatment. More than half of overall patients have been waiting up to 18 weeks, failing to meet the 92 per cent standard.

It is the highest number since records began in August 2007.

Why is the NHS waiting list so high?

The prime minister has blamed hindrances to the NHS on strikes.

“Industrial action obviously makes meeting these targets very challenging,” he said, alluding to walkouts by junior doctors, amongst others.

Meanwhile, Labour has said the Government is to blame. Shadow secretary of state for health and socialcareWes Streeting said on Jeremy Vine’s show: “The NHS is going through the worst crisis in its history... unless we make some big calls, we won’t have an NHS that’s there for us when we need it.”

How does the NHS waiting list work?

When you’re referred for your first outpatient appointment, according to the NHS, the e-Referral Service lets you book the appointment at a hospital or clinic of your choice, on a date and at a time that suits you.

How are patients on the waiting list prioritised?

Guidance from the NHS states: “The length of time you wait will depend on your specific treatment and clinical needs, and you could be seen quicker or wait longer than the waiting time shown.”

What is the legal maximum waiting time for the NHS?

The NHS says the maximum waiting time for non-urgent, consultant-led treatments is 18 weeks from the day your appointment is booked through the NHS e-Referral Service, or when the hospital or service receives your referral letter.

The maximum waiting time for suspected cancer is two weeks from the day your appointment is booked through the NHS e-Referral Service, or when the hospital or service receives your referral letter.

Waiting times can vary between hospitals and the NHS encourages patients to look at comparisons when choosing where to receive their treatment.

What are patients’ rights for NHS waiting time?

The NHS Constitution standard has outlined goals for more than 92 per cent of patients, stating treatment no more than 18 weeks after a referral. Current data demonstrates that hasn’t been achieved.

If your treatment hasn’t started in the 18-week period, contact your NHS provider to see how long your wait might be and if anything can be done.

Your right to an 18-week waiting time does not apply if you choose to wait longer; delaying the start of your treatment is in your best clinical interests; it is clinically appropriate for your condition to be actively monitored in secondary care without clinical intervention or diagnostic procedures at that stage; you fail to attend appointments that you had chosen from a set of reasonable option, or that the treatment is no longer necessary.