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14 June 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 1:19pm

How NHS waiting times were at a record high even before Covid-19

Austerity left the health service struggling to cope with patient demand long before the pandemic. 

By Nick Ferris

The NHS has faced an unprecedented challenge over the past 15 months, with 468,000 Covid-19 patients admitted to UK hospitals since the start of the pandemic.

Record NHS waiting times are the result of both austerity and Covid-19
Total population waiting for treatment by NHS England, Jan 2009 to April 2021 (millions)
NHS England

By April 2021, the numbers on the NHS waiting list in England had risen to 5.1 million. The NHS continued to face reduced non-Covid capacity – but with a less severe lockdown and more measured government messaging, people were less inclined to stay away from hospitals when suffering non-Covid ailments. 

Politicians may be quick to blame these figures on Covid-19. But the total number of people waiting for treatment was at a record level even before the pandemic, and had been rising every year since 2013.  

The NHS has been under financial pressure throughout the past decade: according to calculations by think tank the King’s Fund, the NHS budget rose by an average of 1.4 per cent per year between 2009 and 2019, compared to 3.7 per cent per year since the NHS’s establishment in 1948. 

A Cabinet Office report leaked last week estimated that an additional £40bn may be needed to tackle NHS England waiting lists.

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