More than 5 million people are now on waiting lists for hospital treatment, with some forced to wait more than two years, official statistics show.
Surgeons said the health service had reached a “grim milestone” with too many people left in pain and misery for operations which could restore their quality of life.
The NHS figures show the number of people on the list in April this year was the highest since records began in 2007.
For the first time, the data reveal that they include thousands waiting more than two years for operations and treatment. It does not specify how much longer than this any individuals waited.
The figures show that 385,490 people waited at least 12 months to start treatment.
Among them were 64,959 patients waiting more than 18 months, including 2,722 people who have endured a delay of more than two years.
The figures show that for the first time the total list is more than 5 million, with 5.12 million in total on the lists.
The number waiting at least a year for treatment fell by 50,000 in a month – but is 35 times higher than it was 12 months before.
Hundreds of those facing the longest waits were waiting for hip and knee surgery, with many left to endure pain and loss of mobility.
The figures show 516 people waiting more than two years for trauma and orthopaedic treatment, with 312 waiting that long for general surgery, such as hernia and gallbladder operations.
Tim Mitchell, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “Today we have sadly reached the grim milestone in England of more than 5 million people on the NHS hospital waiting list. Really long waits of more than a year, and in some cases more than two years, are particularly troubling.
“These are people waiting for operations like hip and knee replacements, or ear, nose and throat surgery. This is life-changing surgery we’re talking about. Operations that can help people get back to work, that relieve pain and mean people can enjoy a decent quality of life again.”
He said a funding plan was needed to restore the backlog.
Tracey Loftis, head of policy and public affairs at Versus Arthritis, said: “People with arthritis are bearing the brunt of this crisis as they wait for life-changing joint replacement surgery. The effects are far-reaching, and on many levels – financial, emotional, physical, and psychological.
“It is critical that people with arthritis are not left struggling in pain with their lives put on hold. As longer waits lead to more severe joint damage and reduce the chance of future operations being successful, this issue becomes even more unacceptable.
Prof Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said: "Despite the extensive disruption to care caused by the pandemic, it’s encouraging that today’s figures show routine operations, cancer and mental health care have now all rebounded sharply. Average waits for non-urgent care have fallen to 11 weeks, and the number of people waiting over 52 weeks fell by more than 50,000 in April.”
The total number of people admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England in April 2021 was 223,780 – more than five times the number a year earlier.
However, this reflects lower-than-usual figures for April 2020, which were affected by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The equivalent figure for March 2019 was 280,209.
A&E attendances at hospitals in England last month were 65 per cent higher than a year ago, NHS England said.
A total of 2.08 million attendances were recorded in May 2021, up from 1.26 million in May 2020. The equivalent figure for May 2019 was 2.17 million.
Emergency admissions to A&E departments at hospitals in England also showed a rise last month, up from 398,406 in May 2020 to 543,754 in May 2021. The equivalent figure for May 2019 was 547,382.
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NHS treatment waiting lists