It could take up to three years to get NHS waiting lists to pre-pandemic levels, a hospital chief has said.
Professor David Loughton, chief executive of the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, said clearing the backlog of patients waiting for procedures which have stacked up while tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is now a priority.
Prof Loughton added that “waiting lists are back to where they were in the early 2000s”, as a result of redeploying vast resources to fight the pandemic.
He said that in his trust of 10,500 staff alone, they had had to cancel all general surgery at one site, redeploy its staff and boost intensive care capacity by “300%”, to cope with the virus’s peaks.
The health chief added that “things are looking good” as numbers of Covid in-patients have dropped significantly since January, but other NHS patients have been left “suffering” as operations and procedures had to be cancelled.
He said the trust, which runs Wolverhampton’s New Cross Hospital, is now “in the period” of restoring services like general surgery to its other site, Cannock Chase Hospital in Staffordshire, but it will take time to get on top of waiting list numbers.
Prof Loughton was speaking in the year to the month that the first coronavirus patient in the West Midlands – and the fourth nationally – died, which was at New Cross on March 8, 2020.
He said although services are being restored, staff, who had made “a fabulous effort”, now need the “opportunity to have some leave and respite”.
Prof Loughton said Cannock will be “up and running at full speed” within a fortnight, adding: “I would think I would be somewhat similar to most hospitals in the West Midlands.”
Turning to waiting lists, he added: “I think realistically you are talking about two maybe three years to get back to previous levels because NHS waiting lists are now at a very, very high level and it will take time to restore that.”
He added it is “right to share with the public how long it is going to take us to restore these services”, and he will share the trust’s “modelling” of how it intends to handle backlogs, along with timescales, in due course.
Prof Loughton said: “Our main focus is on cancer and cardiac surgery.
“Throughout all of this I carried on doing cardiac surgery, carried on treating the critical cancer patients.
“But if you’re waiting for a (replacement) hip or a knee or something, you’ll be waiting in pain and discomfort.”
Meanwhile as the anniversary of England’s first lockdown approaches, Prof Loughton praised his staff’s flexibility.
He said: “I have had consultant ophthalmologists, eye surgeons, acting-down, working as intensive care nurses.
People will be suffering, no doubts about that, because they haven't had the operation they actually neededProfessor David Loughton, Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust
“It’s been a fabulous effort by everybody to get us where we’re at, in a much safer place.
“Numbers are dropping now, my organisation had gone from a peak of 350 Covid-19 in-patients on January 27, and we’re now down to about 47, so the numbers are coming down and things are looking good.”
But he said the trust has “got to concentrate now on restoring services because waiting lists are back to where they were in the early 2000s”.
He added: “People will be suffering, no doubts about that, because they haven’t had the operation they actually needed.
“I think that is really important, restore services as rapidly as we possibly can.”