One in eight adults in the UK have paid for private medical care in the last year because of long delays in getting NHS treatment, renewing fears that the NHS is becoming “a two-tier system”.
“Around one in eight (13%) adults reported they had paid for private medical care, with 5% using private insurance and 7% paying for the treatment themselves,” according to a new report by the Office for National Statistics.
Patients also say that waiting for tests or treatment is badly affecting them, including making their illness worse.
The ONS’s report is into how soaring inflation and difficulties accessing NHS care are affecting people’s lives.
Its survey of 2,510 adults across the UK found that one in five were waiting for an appointment, test or treatment at an NHS hospital. Of those in that situation:
Three-quarters said their delay had had either a strongly (34%) or slightly (42%) negative impact on their life
36% said waiting had made their condition worse
59% said it had damaged their wellbeing
A third said long waits had affected either their mobility (33%) or ability to exercise (34%)
David Hare, the chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN), said: “With NHS waiting lists at record levels, it is not surprising that more people are paying for private treatment, including those who have never previously considered it.
“Recent IHPN polling showed that over one in five people expect to use private healthcare in the next 12 months and almost half of the public would consider private healthcare if they need treatment.”
Dr Tony O’Sullivan, co-chair of campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, claimed the numbers using a private healthcare provider were “a damning indictment of the devastating effect this government’s mismanagement has had on the NHS over the last 12 years.
“No one can blame individuals who are suffering for seeking timelier treatment under the circumstances, but it absolutely doesn’t have to be this way.
“The NHS was objectively rated the best in the world in 2010. Now healthcare in the UK is rapidly becoming a genuine two-tier system due to the degradation of one of our finest assets, and ultimately we are all poorer for it.”
The ONS report, for which the survey work was undertaken between 22 November and 4 December, came out on Thursday as nurses went on strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in a dispute with the government over their pay.
Of the 20% who are on a waiting list, 70% said they had been waiting more than six months, with 18% forced to wait for a year or longer.
It comes as NHS England figures show the continuing pressure the service faces this winter.
The number of patients treated in NHS hospitals on average this winter now stands at more than 94,000 patients, the highest absolute number since winter 2014/15.
Although 94.4% of beds were occupied across the service last week, this level of bed occupancy is not atypical for winter, but remains far higher than the 85% level generally considered to be the point beyond which safety and efficiency are at risk.
One in six patients arriving by ambulance waited more than an hour to get treated in A&E in the week to 11 December, equivalent to 12,534 patients, by far the highest levels recorded across the past six winters.
One in three patients arriving at hospitals by ambulance are now waiting more than 30 minutes to be seen by A&E staff.
NHS England recorded its busiest ever level of 111 calls outside the initial weeks of Covid lockdown, partly driven by parents concerned about rising Strep A infections.
And other pressures are also building: 1,248 general and critical care beds were required for flu patients each day last week compared with 772 the previous week, a 62% rise. Just 25 beds were taken up by flu patients in the same week last year.
Meanwhile, the number of adult beds closed due to norovirus was up more than a fifth compared with the first week of December, with 457 beds closed last week.