WAITING times for non-urgent treatment at Hampshire Hospitals Trust have risen to their highest level since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, new figures reveal.

With colder weather approaching, experts are warning that the NHS must be winter-proof to prevent seasonal flu and further Covid-19 outbreaks from bringing routine surgeries to a halt.

According to NHS rules, patients referred for non-urgent consultant-led elective care should start treatment within 18 weeks.

But NHS data shows 50 per cent of patients on the waiting list for elective operations or other treatment at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, at the end of July, had been waiting longer.

That was the highest proportion since March, when 24 per cent of patients had waited 18 weeks or more, meaning 18,288 patients had been on the list for longer than the target time.

The rate was also far higher than in July last year, when 14 per cent of patients had been waiting beyond 18 weeks for treatment.

NHS trusts are normally expected to make sure 92 per cent of patients are seen within the maximum target time.

Non-urgent elective operations – such as hip and knee replacements – were suspended during the height of lockdown to free up beds for coronavirus patients, leading to delayed care for many patients across England.

Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said patients who have been waiting months for treatment "cannot afford to wait until next spring".

He added: “We urgently need to build up our hospital reserves if we are to see this winter through.

"Flu, together with continuing local Covid-19 outbreaks, must not bring surgery to a standstill again, or thousands more will suffer.”

Nationally, 2.2 million people were still waiting for treatment after 18 weeks in July – the highest number for a single month since records began in 2007.

At 47 per cent of those on the waiting list, it was also the worst performance on record.

Some 83,000 patients had been waiting for over a year, the most for any month in more than a decade.

The lengthy waits are a “timely reality check on the challenges facing NHS services” as they deal with a backlog of patients since the pandemic hit, Gbemi Babalola, senior analyst at The King’s Fund think tank, said.

Meanwhile, the Society for Acute Medicine has called on the Government to “publish full winter crisis planning proposals which include investment into staffing and estates to cope”.

Its president, Dr Susan Crossland, said: "The NHS is struggling hugely despite the drop in elective work and we are now seeing increased pressures with admissions creeping up.

“The reduction in acute beds is a major concern for us. We cannot allow corridor care to return."

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said the focus should not be solely on what Covid-19 stopped the NHS from doing, and called for the hard work of frontline staff to be recognised.

She added: “We are in a much better place than many would have predicted a few months ago.

“The recovery from the peak of the pandemic was always going to require step by step increases in activity and the NHS is well on the way to restoring services.”