Face-to-face GP appointments plummeted during Covid while A&E attendances soared

Face-to-face GP appointments have plummeted during the pandemic, while June saw the busiest month on record for A&E attendances – more than doubling compared to the same time last year, new data reveal.

Around half of patients had an in-person GP appointment between January and March this year, according to the NHS GP Patient Survey, down 40 per cent on last year’s figures.

The number of appointments carried out by phone increased from around one in 10 in 2020, to almost one in two (46 per cent) in 2021.

More than two in five people who needed to see a GP in the last year avoided making an appointment, the survey revealed, with the most common reason for avoidance being concern about the burden on the NHS (mentioned by 20 per cent of respondents).

It comes amid warnings the health service is "buckling under the strain of running a winter-like service in summer" as latest figures reveal the extent of the pressures.

5.3million people waiting to start hospital treatment 

The number of people waiting to start hospital treatment in England has again exceeded the national record reaching 5.3million, according to NHS England data.

Those having to wait more than a year to start treatment stood at 336,733 in May 2021 – down from 385,490 in the previous month, but around 13 times that the number waiting a year earlier at 26,029 in May 2020.

Almost 4,000 people are now waiting more than two years to begin treatment, up 44 per cent on April’s figures – when the NHS first began reporting the data set.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned a surge in Covid cases this summer would place "even more strain" on urgent care.

In numbers: How Covid impacted NHS treatment in 2020

"Many of our organisations are running far too hot and are much busier than they have historically been at this time of year," he said. "Our staff are also exhausted after a gruelling 18 months, yet a huge demand for healthcare has left the NHS buckling under the strain of running a winter-like service in summer."

Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, head of health analytics at LCP, said the "substantial" rise in patients waiting two years to being treatment was "very concerning".

"The new Secretary of State has made waiting lists one of his major priorities. He must ensure additional resources are targeted at the areas with most unmet need to ensure inequalities do not worsen further as a legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic," he said.

Major A&E departments face critical patient levels 

June was the busiest month on record for major A&E departments, with around 100,000 more people attending last month compared with the same time in 2019, and 53 per cent higher than the same time last year.

Just over 1,200 patients were victims of so-called "trolley waits" in which they waited more than 12 hours before being admitted. In June 2019, this figure was 462.

Addenbrookes Hospital, in Cambridge, declared an "internal critical incident" this week due to a surge in non-Covid patients and more than 100 staff being told to isolate per day. 

Three hospitals in Scotland have also declared "code black" incidents after reaching capacity and being unable to complete non-urgent care.

Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said the figures show the "precarious situation the NHS is in".

NHS wait times

He said the summer is typically used to "regroup" before winter pressures begin, but added: "There is no time to regroup, however, and the Government needs to focus on how it will enable the NHS to cope against a backdrop of chronic underfunding, reduced bed capacity, staffing crises and a social care system in disarray – along with the pandemic and recovery work."

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said although Covid hospitalisations are not at previous levels, current pressures mean even a slight uptick in admissions will "impact the ability to bear down on the care backlog".

"The Government must continue to take this into account between now and next Monday when making the decision about whether to unlock restrictions," he said.

NHS England said patients waiting longer than 18 weeks to start treatment dropped by more than 80,000 last month, while those waiting more than 12 months fell by 50,000 for the second month in a row.

Professor Stephen Powis, NHS medical director, said the reduction was "reassuring", adding: "All the while, NHS staff have dealt with rising numbers of A&E attendances while continuing to roll out the NHS Covid vaccination programme and I would urge anyone who needs a routine operation to come forward, and anyone who needs urgent care, to go to NHS 111 Online or call 111 so that the best option for you can be determined."

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