Figures show 2.9m patients waiting for treatment in January, and 45,000 more not treated within 18 weeks than in January 2013.
In all 2.9m people were waiting for treatment in January, up by 362,000 from the 2.538m seen in the same month in 2013, and 326,000 more than the 2.574m who were on the list for treatment when the coalition took over in May 2010.
That is the highest total recorded in January since records began in 2007-08 and the first time January’s total has been more than December’s. Until now it has always fallen in the first month of the year.
It may now reach 3m for the first time under the coalition – a figure last seen in March 2008 – in coming months.
The number of patients in England in January who had not been treated within the 18-week target enshrined in the NHS constitution hit 189,179, some 45,438 higher than the same month in 2013, though fewer than in May 2010. In addition, both mean and median waiting times are now the highest since early 2008.
The referral to treatment scheme data, published by NHS England and supplied by almost all hospitals, cover January 2014 and underlines how the service has faced rising demand, despite this winter not having brought the crisis some doctors and experts predicted.
Separate statistics for the 102 non-foundation trust hospitals – which are often among the NHS’s poorer-performing organisations – bear that out.
They show that those hospitals as a whole breached the requirement to treat 95% of A&E patients within four hours during both December and January, though only missed that key NHS target by a fraction of one per cent in December and 0.64% in January. Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust was January’s worst performer, recording just 84.99% compliance.
These hospitals also failed to treat 90% of admitted patients within the required 18 weeks in October, November, December and January because 20 trusts missed the target. North West London Hospitals NHS Trust managed just 69.65% in January.
Ten trusts also did not treat 95% of non-admitted within 18 weeks. Plymouth hospitals were the worst on 89.41%.
Non-foundation trusts also failed to ensure that no more than 1% of patients waited no more than six weeks for a diagnostic test in December and January. Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust fared worst, with 17.12% of patients waiting longer than six weeks, and 13.45% in West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
Those hospitals are also struggling to ensure that 85% of cancer patients are treated within 62 days of their GP referring them urgently. Some “have seen their performance slipping in the last period”, according to a report issued on Thursday by the NHS Trust Development Authority (TDA), which regulates the sector.
In January it emerged that 18 of the 147 foundation trust hospitals had breached that target in the last three months of 2013, up from just four the year before.
The TDA said that the ongoing squeeze on NHS budgets meant that “the challenge of maintaining national standards is harder than at any point in recent history”, though the sector had performed well in difficult circumstances this winter.
Jamie Reed, the shadow health minister, highlighted the lengthening waiting list for operations as “a worrying sign of what lies ahead for patients as NHS lists reach their longest in years.”
But a Department of Health spokesman insisted that “despite the NHS treating far more people, average waiting times are low and stable and the number of people waiting 18, 26 and 52 weeks is lower than in May 2010.”
Of the million or so patients who start treatment with a consultant every month “the overwhelming majority are seen and treated within 18 weeks”, he added.
David Flory, the TDA’s chief executive, acknowledged that the finances of the 102 trusts he supervises are “a source of significant concern” after 26 of them ran up a combined deficit this year of £458m and the sector as a whole overspent by £247m, with some trusts busting their budgets by as much as £40m.