The number of people waiting longer than 18 weeks for hospital treatment in England is now almost 1.45 million – the highest figure since 2007, figures show.
Data from NHS England shows people are facing long waits for cancer treatment to start while hundreds of thousands are waiting for diagnostic scans.
The number of people having to wait more than 18 weeks to start hospital treatment rose to 1,448,357 million in May this year, the figures show.
This is more than double the number in May 2019 (576,237) and the highest number for any calendar month since December 2007.
Just 62.2% of people were seen within 18 weeks, the records for May show, against a target of 95%.
The number of people having to wait more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment in England also jumped to 26,029 in May 2020, up from 1,032 in May 2019 and the highest number for any calendar month since September 2009.
On cancer care, the NHS missed its target for treatment to start, with just 69.9% people beginning treatment within two months of GP referral – the lowest percentage since records began in October 2009.
Some 106,535 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in May 2020, down from 200,599 in May 2019 – a fall of 47%, with experts blaming the impact of Covid-19.
This is the number of people seen by a cancer consultant within two weeks of being referred.
Urgent breast cancer referrals showed an even bigger drop: down from 15,802 in May 2019 to 5,371 in May 2020, a fall of 66%.
Meanwhile, more than half a million patients in England had been waiting more than six weeks for a key diagnostic test in May 2020, after having been referred by a GP.
A total of 571,459 patients were waiting for one of 15 standard tests, including an MRI scan, non-obstetric ultrasound or gastroscopy. The equivalent number waiting for more than six weeks in May 2019 was 43,230.
The latest data also shows that the number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was down 82% in May compared with a year ago due to the impact of coronavirus.
A total of 54,550 patients were admitted for treatment during the month, down from 295,881 in May 2019.
Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “Clearly NHS performance across the board continues to be hugely affected by Covid-19, though we must also remember performance has been poor for a lot longer than that and questions need to be answered as to how we ensure the sustainable future of the service.
“We are very concerned about the growing crisis in accessing diagnostic tests, with the total number of patients waiting six weeks or more from referral for one of the 15 key tests at almost 571,500 – 58.5% of the total number of patients waiting – which is shocking given the target is 1%.”
An NHS spokesman said: “Despite responding rapidly to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to ensure over 100,000 patients could receive hospital care, NHS staff also provided more than five million urgent tests, checks and treatment in a safe way during the peak of the virus.
“The overall waiting list has fallen by more than half a million since the onset of Covid, but, as more patients come forward, local health services continue work to expand services safely.”
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “This is yet more worrying evidence of the impact Covid-19 has had on cancer patients and services.
“While it’s encouraging that the number of urgent cancer referrals has started to recover since the steep decline in April, the latest figures for May are still worryingly low.
“And we know from local figures that urgent referrals are not yet back to normal levels, well past the peak of the virus.
“Months of delays have continued to add to the mounting cancer backlog, which will take considerable effort, time and money to clear.”
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “We have been concerned since the start of this pandemic that suspending elective surgery for a period of months placed a time bomb under what was already a crisis in NHS waiting times.
“That time bomb has now detonated, with the numbers of those waiting more than a year for treatment spiralling out of control.
“And the supposed legal right for patients to be treated within 18 weeks looks more like a vague aspiration, with two in five now waiting longer.”
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at the King’s Fund, warned of a “long and difficult road ahead”, adding: “It will take time for services to bounce back to previous levels of activity due to physical distancing, infection control and the need to give hard-working health and care staff much-needed respite in the coming months.”