NHS waiting lists could top eight million by next summer regardless of whether doctors continue to strike over pay, according to new analysis.
The Health Foundation is calling for policy changes and continued investment to clear the backlog.
In a new report, the organization modeled four different scenarios and concluded that, based on current trends, NHS waiting lists could peak at eight million by August 2024 if there is no further strike action by NHS workers. health sector before they start to decline.
If the strikes continued, the list could be 180,000 higher, he said.
Earlier this month it was revealed that 7.75 million people were waiting for NHS treatment since August, the highest figure since records began in 2007.
Charles Tallack, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: “Behind these numbers are people agonizing over a diagnosis, patients with avoidable pain and lives on hold.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made tackling waiting lists a priority in early 2023, but the government has since blamed ongoing NHS strikes for making the issue more difficult.
Mr Tallack added: “While industrial action has a range of impacts on NHS organisations, the strikes have only resulted in a small increase in the size of the overall waiting list.
“Ministers have been quick to blame industrial action for the lack of progress in reducing waiting lists, but the roots of this crisis lie in a decade of underinvestment in the NHS, the failure to tackle chronic staff shortages and the long-term neglect of social care. “
Different groups of health workers are on strike from December 2022 – including nurses, radiographers and ambulance drivers as well as doctors – with the action affecting more than a million appointments.
However, the Health Foundation's analysis only includes disruption caused by the junior doctor and consultant strikes, because of the direct impact on the waiting list for consultant-led care.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, said the report “will feed trust leaders' concerns that record waiting lists will continue to grow before falling”.
“The projected increase alongside the growing economic impact of industrial action highlights the urgent need to resolve the strikes,” he added.
“While strikes are not the main cause of longer waits, the report confirms they are exacerbating the problem by eating up NHS resources that could be better spent on reducing care delays.”
Mr Tallack also highlights how the pandemic has “piled significant further pressure on an already strained system”, but said “waiting lists were already growing well before Covid”.
He added: “Abolishing elective care delays and returning waiting times to 18 weeks is absolutely doable – it was done in the early 2000s and it can be done again. However, it will be very challenging and will require sustained focus, policy action and investment.”
An NHS spokesman said: “While the analysis itself recognizes that the impact of the strikes is significantly underestimated and NHS staff and patients would not agree that the impact was small, with more than a million appointments and rescheduled procedures, it continued to significant progress in reducing longer waits – two-year waits have virtually been eliminated and waits of more than 65 weeks have been more than halved.
“The NHS is seeing high levels of demand, with more people coming forward for the care they need and referrals increasing at an even higher rate than before the pandemic, so our selective recovery plan and tools such as community diagnostics centers, surgical hubs, and technology such as robots and artificial intelligence are essential to address delays and ensure that everyone gets the care they need as quickly as possible.”
However, Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said the Foundation Health figures were “depressing”.
“Waiting lists have grown over the past decade due to underinvestment and labor shortages,” he added.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these pressures.
“While labor action has contributed to the delays, the roots of this crisis predate the strikes.”
Mr Mitchell called for “transformational solutions” to tackle waiting lists in a “meaningful and sustainable way”.
He added: “Most importantly, we also need to improve staff morale and retention. The government's commitment to increase the health workforce is welcome. However, hiring new staff is only half the solution.
“Providing a supportive and well-resourced work environment is vital to reducing burnout.”
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “This makes it clear that NHS waiting lists would be the highest in history today even without industrial action.
“Blowing the water the Conservatives are trying to blame doctors and nurses for the NHS crisis.
“Rishi Sunak's failure to stop the strikes has exacerbated a dire situation, leaving even more patients waiting in pain and discomfort, unable to live their lives to the fullest.”
NHS strikes escalated last month with the first joint strike by junior doctors and consultants in history, leading to a second three-day period of concerted action in early October.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said councilors will hold off on calling further strikes until November to allow negotiations to take place.
They agreed to talk to ministers earlier this month, with the BMA's junior doctors committee following suit.
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.