Labour campaign video doesn’t accurately reflect NHS waiting list data

24 May 2024
What was claimed

Seven and a half million people are on NHS waiting lists.

Our verdict

That’s not what NHS data shows. About 6.3 million people are on the main NHS England waiting list. Some need more than one kind of treatment so there are about 7.5 million cases on the list. Nearly 10 million adults in England say they are waiting for something on the NHS.

Seven and a half million people are on waiting lists

A campaign video from the Labour party on X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook seems to make a very familiar mistake when it claims “seven and a half million people are on waiting lists”.

In the last 24 hours the video has been shared by a large number of Labour politicians and shadow ministers, including the deputy leader Angela Rayner and the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting.

A similar claim also appeared in Richard Littlejohn’s column in the Daily Mail yesterday, which said: “More than seven million people are waiting for treatment on the NHS.”

We have written about this many times before, and it’s not what NHS data shows. Assuming they are talking about NHS England (which the UK government controls) and the referral to treatment (RTT) data, which is usually what people mean by “the waiting list”, this is not the number of people waiting, it’s the number of cases.

In the latest data, collected at the end of March 2024, about 6.3 million people were waiting to begin about 7.5 million courses of treatment.

There are always more cases than people in the data, because some people are awaiting treatment for more than one thing.

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The data has changed over time

The RTT data was published for many years without saying how many individual patients it described. It was very common for people to say “patients” or “people”, and always technically wrong, but it was hard to know whether the correct figure would be very different.

This changed in November 2023, when NHS England began to publish an estimate for the number of patients waiting, which showed that there was a significant difference between the figures.

Since a correct number is now available, we think people should use it. Politicians and the media should take care to describe public services accurately, especially during an election campaign, so that people can base their vote on the facts.

In recent months we’ve seen Labour politicians, the Liberal Democrats and the media seem to confuse the number of cases on the NHS waiting list with the number of patients. We’ve previously written to Labour, as well as other politicians and media outlets, and asked them to stop repeating variations of this claim. In some cases we’ve secured corrections, and a number of Labour MPs have told us they would not repeat the claim.

What about all waiting lists?   

It seems clear from the figures Labour and Mr Littlejohn used that they were talking about the RTT data specifically, but there are several other types of waiting list, so the RTT figure doesn’t cover everyone waiting for any kind of service from the NHS.

No official statistic gives us that number, but last month the Office for National Statistics published survey data (collected in January and February 2024), which showed that about 21% of the adults in England said they were “currently waiting for a hospital appointment, test, or to start receiving medical treatment through the NHS”.

This actually equates to about 9.7 million adults in England, suggesting that the number of people waiting for something on the NHS is actually much higher than the 6.3 million people covered by the RTT data.

As we’ve said, Labour’s claim appears to refer to the RTT data in England, because the UK government is responsible for NHS England, while the NHS in the other nations is devolved. 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 before.

We’ve contacted the Labour party, as well as Ms Rayner, Mr Streeting and the Daily Mail, and will update this article if we receive a response.

We took a stand for good information.

After we published this fact check, Mail Online amended Richard Littlejohn's column.

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