Health policy think tanks are warning that, with hospitals set to remain hampered by the need to observe strict infection control and an expected increase in new patients, there is no realistic prospect of clearing the bottlenecks.

The long-term support demanded by many Covid-19 patients is likely to add to the pressure.

The new figures provide further worrying evidence of pandemic’s impact on cancer patients, with a near halving of the number of urgent cancer referrals in May compared to last year.

Some 106,535 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in May 2020, down from 200,599 in May 2019 – a fall of 47 per cent – with experts blaming the impact of coronavirus.

Urgent breast cancer referrals showed an even bigger drop, down from 15,802 in May 2019 to 5,371 in May this year, a fall of 66 per cent.

Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at the King’s Fund, said: “This data lays bare the enormous challenge facing NHS services across the country. The number of patients waiting over a year for planned care is rocketing up, as are waits for key diagnostic tests.

“Hospitals are now starting to see more patients for routine care – but the recovery is still in its early stages, with a long and difficult road ahead.”

NHS waiting times improved significantly in the years up to 2007, when the current format for recording performance began following the introduction of targets.

But performance was slipping before the pandemic, and on Thursday the Royal College of Surgeons said the suspension of elective surgery, such as knee and hip replacements, during the height of the outbreak had “placed a bomb under what was already a crisis in NHS waiting times”.

Just 62.2 per cent of people were seen within 18 weeks, the records for May show, against a target of 95 per cent.

The number of people having to wait more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment in England also jumped to 26,029 in May 2020, up from 1,032 in May 2019 and the highest number for any calendar month since September 2009.

The latest data also shows that the number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was down 82 per cent in May compared with a year ago due to the impact of coronavirus.

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