Around 6.5 million patients in England on hospital waiting lists

20 November 2023
What was claimed

There are 7.8 million people on hospital waiting lists.

Our verdict

That’s not what NHS England data shows. The latest figures estimate there were 6.5 million unique patients waiting for treatment in September 2023. Around 7.8 million treatment pathways were yet to begin, but some patients are waiting for more than one type of treatment.

There are 7.8 million people on hospital waiting lists.

On the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said “there are 7.8 million people on hospital waiting lists”. 

That’s not correct according to the latest NHS England figures. Health is a devolved matter in the UK and Ms Reeves appears to have been referring to figures for England, based on the 7.8 million figure she cited. 

According to NHS England’s most recent data, this figure refers to the number of “referral to treatment pathways where a patient was waiting to start treatment” in September 2023. In other words, it’s the number of cases where someone was waiting, not how many individuals were waiting. 

The number of unique patients waiting for treatment in September was estimated to be 6.5 million, as some patients were waiting for multiple courses of treatment to begin. 

On 9 November 2023, NHS England published data for the first time on the number of individual patients who had been referred but were still waiting for their first definitive treatment

This data shows that, at the end of September, there were an estimated 6.5 million unique patients waiting for an estimated 7.77 million treatment pathways to begin. 

Prior to this release, NHS England did not publish numbers of unique patients waiting for treatment. Before this breakdown was available, it was not unusual to see organisations or media outlets referring to figures for outstanding treatment pathways as ‘people on the waiting list’. 

This was technically incorrect, for the same reason that Ms Reeves’ claim is incorrect, although at that time we didn’t have the official figures for the number of unique patients on the waiting list to compare to the incomplete referral to treatment figures. 

However, The Guardian has recently incorrectly reported that this 7.8 million figure refers to the number of people “waiting for hospital care” in England.

It’s not the first time in recent weeks that a member of the Labour shadow cabinet has incorrectly used NHS England waiting time statistics. 

Earlier this month, we fact checked shadow health secretary Wes Streeting after he claimed a million more patients were on NHS waiting lists compared to last year, when figures show it’s more like half a million. 

Politicians must take care to use the best evidence, and most recent available data, and describe it accurately, so people are not misled about the state of public services. 

We’ve written to Ms Reeves,the Labour Party and the Guardian and will update this article if we receive responses.

Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Rachel Reeves to ask her not to repeat this claim. We also contacted Sir Keir Starmer, Liz Kendall, Tulip Siddiq, Angela Eagle, Rachael Maskell, Andrew Western and Sarah Olney who had all subsequently made the same claim.

Tulip Siddiq, Rachael Maskell and Angela Eagle all confirmed that they would not repeat the claim. Liz Kendall removed the claim from her website. The Times and the Independent amended articles featuring the claim.

Rachel Reeves, Sir Keir Starmer, Andrew Western and Sarah Olney are yet to respond.

It’s not good enough.

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