From its starring role in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics to the banging of pots and pans on our doorsteps during the pandemic, there is no doubt that the NHS is a treasured part of our cultural identity.

In recent years, however, media headlines have brought attention to the fact that the service has been experiencing severe strain. In this article, we take a look at the data behind some of those headlines, shining a light on some of the challenges that are impacting on patient experiences.

Ambulance response times

There has been a widely reported increase in ambulance response times, with targets consistently missed since summer 2021. In December 2022, the response time for urgent Category 1 calls hit a record high of more than 10 minutes against a target of seven minutes.

These figures should be read in the context of an increase in the number of recorded incidents, but another major factor behind delays is bottlenecks at hospitals. In many cases, emergency response teams are queueing to handover patients because hospitals are operating at such a high level of patient capacity.

Pressure on beds

Prior to 2022, availability of hospital beds was already at a premium in the NHS, but the situation was exacerbated by a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges last year, including a rapid rise in winter virus cases.

Hospitals are working hard to ease this pressure by boosting capacity and discharging patients as quickly as they safely can. However, every day in December 2022, an average of 13,364 patients who were eligible for discharge remained in hospital. This was more than a quarter higher than levels seen the previous year.

There are complex reasons behind these ‘delayed discharges’, including the need to secure the right onward pathways for patients, such as a transition into social care. The government has pledged up to £250 million of funding to address this issue.

Waiting lists

Having been steadily rising in the decade prior to the pandemic, the number of people on a waiting list for hospital treatment has grown significantly in the three years since. Data from NHS England shows that this number reached a record of more than 7 million in September 2022.

The official target is for patients to access consultant-led treatment no more than 18 weeks from the date they were referred by their doctor. However, the 18-week treatment target has not been met since 2016.

Cancer care

According to Cancer Research UK, around half of the population are expected to be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. With early diagnosis and speedy treatment crucial to recovery rates, any delays in accessing care are a cause for concern.

Reassuringly, increasing numbers of people are receiving treatment for cancer, but in 2022, NHS waiting times were the worst recorded in England, with analysis showing that all national targets were missed in at least one month.

The NHS aims for 85% of patients to see a cancer specialist and then access treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral. This target has been consistently missed since 2014, and in September 2022, the proportion of patients waiting less than 62 days dropped to 60.5%.

Workforce pressures

Overall numbers of doctors and nurses in the NHS have increased over the past decade, but this is against a backdrop of surging demand and continued recruitment challenges, with the NHS vacancy rate rising from 7.6% to 9.7% in 2022.

Strike action by nurses has served to highlight the strain experienced by many healthcare professionals in the NHS. Despite Chancellor Jeremy Hunt making a commitment in the Autumn Statement to publish a comprehensive workforce plan, there remain concerns over the balance between supply and demand, and its impact on patients.

Giving patients a choice

In the face of such challenging circumstances, it is no surprise that many people are choosing to turn to private healthcare.

Particularly at a time when the NHS and its workers are under unprecedented pressure, private care can provide a highly valuable complementary offering. This can potentially be made more affordable through insurance cover, such as Private Medical Insurance or cash plans, which can be arranged on a personal basis or provided as an employee benefit.

Private providers aren’t a replacement for the excellent care provided by the NHS, but for patients reading uncomfortable statistics about waiting times and resources, the ability to accelerate access to medical expertise and treatments can deliver great comfort.


The information contained within this communication does not constitute financial advice and is provided for general information purposes only. No warranty, whether express or implied is given in relation to such information. Vintage Health or any of its associated representatives shall not be liable for any technical, editorial, typographical or other errors or omissions within the content of this communication.