Tackling the elective case backlog generated by Covid-19: the scale of the problem and solutions

J Public Health (Oxf). 2020 Nov 23;42(4):712-716. doi: 10.1093/pubmed/fdaa155.


Background: In April 2020, Covid-19 brought NHS elective procedures to a halt. The aim of this paper is to produce accurate forecasts on the building backlog, highlight the state of waiting lists currently and propose solutions required to prevent a public health crisis.

Method: Using data published by NHS digital and NHS England on previous years, we have analysed and used this to produce estimates of cancellations and missed cases. We also analyse government data on waiting lists and show compliance or lack of with these.

Results: We show that compliance with waiting list times pre pandemic was falling year on year (83.2% in 2020 down from 87% in 2019). Every month that passes we estimate that 400 000 cases are not being performed. This may include urgent cancer care work in some trusts.

Conclusions: Waiting lists have been governed by strict rules since 2004. Given falling compliance with 18-week intention to treat we believe the scale of the backlog combined with NHS capacity diminished due to Covid-19 precautions is a public health crisis waiting to occur. We identify difficulties in resuming elective work and suggest strategies that could be employed to avoid a public health crisis.

Keywords: emergency planning; health services; planning.