There are about 6.3 million people on the NHS England waiting list

20 June 2024
What was claimed

There are seven and a half million people on NHS waiting lists.

Our verdict

That’s not what the latest NHS data shows. About 6.3 million people are estimated to be on the main NHS England waiting list. Some need more than one kind of treatment, so there are about 7.6 million cases on the list.

Several Facebook posts have repeated a familiar mistake by claiming there are “7.5 million people” on NHS waiting lists, including posts from Labour Party candidates and councillors and local pages, and one post from a local Green Party page. 

But as we have explained many times before, this is not what NHS data shows. 

This claim about NHS waiting lists relates to the picture in England specifically, as this is the part of the health service controlled by the UK government and reflected in the referral to treatment (RTT) data

Health spending is devolved so the UK government is only responsible for the NHS in England (though changes in health spending may affect the overall budgets allocated to the devolved governments).

In the latest figures, collected at the end of April 2024, about 6.3 million people were estimated to be waiting to begin about 7.6 million courses of treatment. At the time these posts were shared the latest data, for March 2024, showed 6.3 million people and 7.5 million cases. 

There are more cases than people in the data because some people are awaiting more than one course of treatment. 

RTT data was published for many years without saying how many individual, or “unique”, patients it described, so it was common for people to say “patients” or “people” when referring to the number of cases. This was always technically wrong, but it was hard to know whether the correct figure for the number of individual people would be very different.

In November 2023, NHS England began to publish an estimate for the number of patients waiting, which showed that there was a substantial difference between the figures.

Since a correct number is now available, we think people should use it. When writing this article we reached out to several political figures who we’ve seen confuse the figures. 

Two Labour candidates have since rectified the mistake, with Joe Powell, who is standing in Kensington and Bayswater, updating his post to clarify “waiting lists at 7.6 million cases” (when it previously said 7.5 million people).

Jane Kirkham, Labour’s candidate for Truro and Falmouth, also corrected her post to say “7.5 million appointments pending” (when it was previously more ambiguous, saying “7.5 million waiting”). We are grateful for their corrections. 

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What about all waiting lists?

It should be noted that the RTT figure doesn’t cover everyone waiting for any kind of service from the NHS, such as people waiting for fracture clinics, for example.

No official statistic gives us that number, but in June the Office for National Statistics published survey data (collected between October 2023 and March 2024), which showed that an estimated 25% of adults (aged 16 and over) in England said they were “currently waiting for a hospital appointment, test, or to start receiving medical treatment through the NHS”.

This equates to about 11.1 million adults in England, suggesting that the number of people waiting for something on the NHS may actually be much higher than the 6.3 million people covered by the RTT data.

Most claims we’ve seen appear to refer to the RTT data in England. There doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to combine the figures from all the nations into a UK total, as we’ve written about before.

We’ve contacted Labour and the Green Party for comment, as well as the individual candidates behind the posts, and will update this article with any responses we receive.

You can follow more of our politics coverage during the general election campaign trail on our live blog.

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