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About one in five adults in England is waiting for hospital appointments or treatments, according to a study that underscores the severe care backlogs in the NHS ahead of the general election expected this year.

Delays were starkest among 16 to 24-year-olds, with 22 per cent reporting wait times of more than 12 months, data released by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday showed. For those aged 70 and over the proportion stood at 8.5 per cent.

One in seven people in need of treatment said they had been waiting for at least a year, with about 12 per cent of respondents noting wait times of more than 18 months.

The study, which surveyed about 90,000 individuals between January 16 and February 15, is the first of its kind by the ONS to assess the experiences of adults awaiting hospital appointments, tests or medical treatments.

Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “Pull back the cover and the crisis in the NHS is even worse than it appeared.  

“[Prime Minister] Rishi Sunak has broken his pledge to cut waiting lists, and now he’s planning to close services and cut doctors and nurses. The longer the Conservatives remain in office, the longer patients wait.”

The data is likely to underscore public frustration over lengthy waits to receive routine medical care. Polls suggest the NHS is among the top two issues concerning voters ahead of the election, alongside the economy.

Sunak has apportioned some of the blame for stubbornly high waits for treatment on industrial action by doctors, part of a long-standing pay dispute.

But critics of Sunak’s position have argued that growth in real-terms funding for the NHS has stagnated at a time when the service is facing unprecedented demand.

Weighted to take account of sample size, the ONS survey suggested that about 9.7mn people aged over 16 — equating to roughly 20 per cent of the population — are waiting for hospital care.

Separate NHS data published last month suggested waiting lists for hospital treatment had fallen slightly since last year, from 7.7mn in October 2023 to 7.58mn in January 2024. 

The ONS also pointed to large regional discrepancies in delays to care. About 18 per cent of adults in the North West said they had been waiting 12 months or longer, the highest of any region, compared with 9 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber.

The survey also looked at people’s access to GP surgeries. It showed 50 per cent of respondents found it very easy or easy to contact their practice, while more than 30 per cent found it difficult or very difficult.

Nearly one in 10 people said they were unable to reach their GP practice when they had last tried to contact them.

NHS England said: “The official published statistics on NHS waiting lists actually show 6.3mn patients were on NHS waiting lists as of the end of January and only 4.2 per cent of waits were over a year.

“Work is ongoing to reduce the longest waits for patients but despite pressures and industrial action, hardworking NHS staff ensured the Covid backlog has fallen for four months in a row and 18-month waits are down almost 90 per cent on their peak,” they added.

The Department of Health and Social Care was contacted for comment.

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