Lung disease patients could die before they are diagnosed with the illness, charities have warned, as they revealed one fifth had to wait more than a year for a prognosis.
There were 100,000 fewer hospital appointments for respiratory illnesses since the start of the pandemic, according to analysis of NHS data by the Taskforce for Lung Health.
The group of more than 30 charities and health bodies, including the British Lung Foundation (BLF) and Asthma UK, also found the number of expected appointments was down 85 per cent during the past year.
Patients who experienced worsening or severe symptoms often had to wait "too long" to get referred, the taskforce said, adding that the current backlog meant even if services returned to pre-pandemic levels they would be "unable to support the number of people in need".
Record 5.1 million patients waiting for treatment
It comes as a record 5.1 million patients are currently waiting to start hospital treatment, according to latest figures.
Life expectancy for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – a serious lung disease – is three to five years post-diagnosis, meaning any delay to diagnosis or treatment could mean "the difference between life and death", the taskforce said.
A survey of more than 4,700 people with lung conditions, carried out by BLF and Asthma UK, also revealed that one in five people had to wait longer than a year for diagnosis, and a quarter had to wait more than six months over the past year.
More than a fifth (23 per cent) experienced symptoms of a lung condition for more than 12 months before seeking a diagnosis and 20 per cent on waiting lists for care have been waiting more than a year.
Alison Cook, chairman of the Taskforce for Lung Health and director of external affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: "The heartbreaking reality of these figures is that some people will die before they find out what’s wrong with them. That’s why any delays to lung disease diagnosis and treatment are simply unacceptable.
"People shouldn’t be waiting up to a year to get a diagnosis, or waiting months for treatment and care. We must address this, now."
She added that outcomes for people with lung disease had not improved in more than a decade prior to the pandemic.
"If funding lung disease care does not now become a top priority for the Government and the NHS, again it will be patients who pay the ultimate price," she said.
Steve Jones, chairman of trustees at Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis, said prior to the pandemic it took on average seven months for patients to be diagnosed with this particular lung condition, with a fifth of people already waiting more than a year, a figure that had risen sharply with diagnostic testing facilities at hospitals closed or unable to operate fully.
"There is now a backlog with patients waiting for diagnosis and tests and unable to access life extending anti-fibrotic medicines,” he said.
An NHS spokesperson said: “While some people were put off seeking care at the peak of the pandemic, GP appointments have been available for those that needed care and referrals for respiratory conditions are increasing quickly – they are now higher than at any other point in the pandemic.
“So if anyone has a continuous cough for three weeks or more, breathing difficulties and continued tiredness, help us help you and get in touch with your GP.”