Nearly six million people in England may be on a hidden waiting list, having not come forward or been referred for treatment yet due to the significant disruption during the pandemic, NHS leaders fear.
Analysis commissioned by the NHS Confederation suggests the true demand for elective care could be much larger when referrals for treatment, such as from GPs, begin to increase again, following a 30% drop last year.
It says that 5.9m fewer referrals for elective treatment were made in 2020 compared to 2019 – 14.25m compared to 20.18m.
The difference is believed to be due to the disruption of the pandemic and the public not coming forward despite the NHS being ‘open for business’.
The NHS Confederation said the exact size of this hidden list was unknown, as some people might have sought care elsewhere, while others might never come forward.
It added: ‘However, if a sizeable majority did present, it could significantly add to the total. One of the modelling projections in the analysis suggests the backlog could therefore reach 6.9m by the end of 2021.’
Chief executive Danny Mortimer said: ‘Health leaders are concerned that we may be scratching the surface of this waiting list if further referrals come through at a time when coronavirus pressures are still high, the workforce is in a very fragile state and when capacity is still so constrained.
‘For their part, NHS organisations are making substantial changes to how they work to improve access and maximise the capacity that is available to them.
‘They are working together to organise treatment between different organisations and they are applying best practice at a scale and pace that have not been seen before. But this will not be enough to address the problems our patients face.’