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New figures claimed to show large rise in people dying on NHS waiting list

More than 120,000 people in England are estimated to have died last year while on the NHS waiting list for hospital treatment, according to figures obtained by the Labour Party.

If the figure is correct, it represents a record high number for such deaths and double the 60,000 patients who died in 2017/18.

According to The Guardian, the Royal Free Hospital, London, said it had had 3,615 such deaths, while there were 2,888 at Morecambe Bay Trust, Cumbria and 2,039 at Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust.

Hospital managers said the deaths highlighted the dangers of patients having to endure long waits for care and reflected a “decade of underinvestment” that had left the NHS with too few staff and beds.

Patient advocacy group, Healthwatch England, which scrutinises NHS performance, said the number of people dying while waiting for care was “a national tragedy”. Chief executive, Louise Ansari, said: “We know that delays to care have significant impacts on people’s lives, putting many in danger.”

The British Medical Association’s deputy chair of council, Dr Emma Runswick, said the fatalities were a “terrible indictment of this government’s mismanagement of our health services.”

Labour asked 138 health trusts how many patients had died during 2022 while they were on the NHS waiting list. Of those, 35 (25%) responded, showing that 30,611 such deaths had occurred.

Labour then extrapolated that figure to estimate that across England as a whole, 120,695 people had died while awaiting hospital care, such as a hip or knee replacement.

But NHS England criticised how Labour reached its conclusions and claimed that they were unreliable and misleading.

An NHS spokesman said: “This analysis, based on figures from just a quarter of hospital trusts, does not demonstrate a link between waits for elective treatment and deaths, and it would be misleading to suggest it does, given the data does not include the cause of death or any further details on the person’s age and medical conditions.”

However, groups representing doctors did not raise any concerns about the accuracy of the figures. They said the deaths were closely linked to the intense pressure hospitals were under and the widespread lack of staff that was hampering the NHS’s efforts to provide timely care and cut the waiting list, which has now risen to 7.6m people, by far the largest number on record.

President of the Society for Acute Medicine, Dr Tim Cooksley, said:  “These figures are extremely worrying as waiting lists are highly likely to continue to rise, potentially reaching the nine million predicted by former health secretary, Sajid Javid. Every one of those has symptoms that may become increasingly unbearable.”

Chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents trusts, Matthew Taylor, the said that Covid-19 would have been a factor in some of the estimated 120,695 deaths, but the key cause was the fact that the NHS has been left with far too few resources to deal with the demand it is facing.

He said: “These figures are a stark reminder about the potential repercussions of long waits for care. They are heartbreaking for the families who will have lost loved ones and are deeply dismaying for NHS leaders who continue to do all they can in extremely difficult circumstances.” 

A Royal Free London spokesperson said: “There is nothing to indicate that waiting for an elective procedure contributed to or caused the death of the patients captured in this data. A routine review of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment at the Royal Free London confirmed that none came to severe harm or died as a result of their wait.

“We have recently made significant progress in reducing waiting times and many of our services continue to run additional clinics and surgical lists during evenings and weekends so patients are seen as soon as possible. We always prioritise patients according to clinical need.”