The COVID-19 pandemic and the policy response that led to fewer patients receiving routine treatment have had a significant impact on NHS waiting lists, with significant backlogs across each of the countries within the UK. However, patients in Wales are suffering more when it comes to long waits for treatment than those in England.
Two-year NHS waiting times are 100 times higher in Wales than in England, with just over 30,000 patients stuck on very long waiting lists in Wales compared with just 314 in England.
Convenient for ministers to say you cannot compare statistics between England and Wales
Comparing statistics between the two devolved nations can at times become problematic because they are not always directly comparable. While working at the Office for National Statistics, I met many times with officials in England and Wales to discuss this matter, but for ministers, it was convenient that journalists could not always directly compare the outcomes between the two nations. Press Office having a line the data is not comparable was a quick way to avoid scrutiny. This has been a live issue just this week with Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary in England, challenged in a BBC interview, when comparing data between the two nations.
In Wales, the headline numbers on waiting times for hospital treatment include patients waiting for therapies and diagnostics, but in England, they do not. In Wales in May 2023, of the 748,395 people waiting to start treatment following a referral, 40,884 (or 5.5%) were waiting for therapies and diagnostics, leaving 707,511 patients awaiting treatment in what are consultant-led specialisms. When referring to waiting times in Wales throughout the rest of this commentary, I present comparable figures for both Wales and England.
1 in 5 patients on waiting lists for over a year in Wales vs 1 in 20 in England
Excluding those waiting for therapies and diagnostics, 20.1% of the total NHS waiting list in Wales, almost 134,000 people, have been waiting more than a year – the comparable number in England is 5.2%.
The impact of long waits for NHS treatment can be significant for the patient, both physically and mentally. Longer wait times can lead to the condition worsening, requiring more complex, difficult, and expensive treatment. The wait for treatment can cause anxiety, stress, and depression while patients may also have to take time off work or school, which can have a financial and social impact.
Around 30,000 people waiting more than two years for treatment in Wales vs 314 patients in England
The latest figures show that 30,212 patients in Wales have been waiting more than two years to start treatment in consultant-led specialisms with a comparable number of just 314 in England.
This means that two-year NHS waiting times 100x higher in Wales than in England, despite England having 18 times the population of Wales. Of those waiting two years in Wales, around a third are waiting for trauma or orthopaedic treatment.
The current COVID-19 inquiry will take years to report on decisions made during the recent pandemic. However, one thing is clear: the fallout on the physical and mental health of the population from delays in treatment cannot be underestimated, and lessons need to be learnt.
Despite the far longer waiting times for patients in Wales under the Labour Party, the situation in England is not something to shout home about. The current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has a pledge to bring waiting times down, but the overall number in England has hit a record high of 7.6 million people.
Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Labour Party across the UK, has made a number of promises for the NHS in England if he is elected Prime Minister, including reform. However, he and the Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, conveniently fail to mention the failures in the NHS in Wales, which has been under the stewardship of their party for over 20 years. Just last year, the Welsh Labour Health Minister, Eluned Morgan, admitted that the system in England was more productive than in parts of Wales.
If the Labour Party has some magic blueprint on how to politically oversee the running of the NHS then voters in England should take a look at what is happening in Wales and ask further questions before casting their vote.