THOUSANDS of patients in the Southampton area have had to wait too long for treatment because of delays caused by the Covid-19 crisis.

New NHS figures show that more than half the people on waiting lists at University Hospital Southampton - and more than a quarter of patients seeking treatment by Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust - have seen their treatment postponed.

Campaigners say the NHS must cut the backlog ahead of seasonal flu and a winter surge in Covid cases.

NHS rules state that patients referred for non-urgent elective care should start their treatment within 18 weeks.

But the new figures show 51% of patients on the waiting list for elective operations or other treatment at University Hospital Southampton at the end of July had been waiting longer - up from 14% in the same month last year.

According to the data, the target time was exceeded in 17,046 cases.

And 26% of patients on the waiting list at the Calmore-based Southern Health at the end of July had also been waiting longer – up from 6% in the same month last year.

NHS trusts are told to ensure that no more than 8% of patients wait longer than 18 weeks.

But non-urgent elective operations such as hip and knee replacements were suspended at the height of the lockdown to free up beds for coronavirus patients.

Royston Smith, Tory MP for Southampton Itchen said: "I think people should expect more from our health service, particularly while coronavirus is in much lower numbers than we've seen in the recent past. I hope we will soon see operations and treatment back to acceptable levels.”

A Southern Health spokesperson said the trust was working to reduce the waiting list backlog.

She said: “Due to Covid-19, and following strict government guidelines, Southern Health, along with other Trusts across the country, had to reduce some services to help keep patients safe.

“In July this unavoidably led to some patients having to wait beyond 18 weeks for some non-urgent routine treatments.

“Over the past few months, we have been working with our acute partners to help reinstate our elective services to ensure patients needing the most urgent care have been prioritised.

“The number of people on waiting lists for routine treatments continues to significantly improve."

The number of patients who have been on a waiting list for routine treatments beyond 18 weeks today is 285.

Joe Teape, chief operating officer for University Hospital Southampton, said: “Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of a number of services in line with government guidance, to allow us to commit staff and resources to managing the number of patients needing acute care that were anticipated. Throughout the pandemic we were still able to continue with some urgent elective work in partnership with the independent sector for example, and use digital solutions to enable our clinicians to stay in touch with patients throughout.

“Since we have seen the number of Covid-related hospital admissions decline, we have urgently sought to re-establish services in the safest way possible taking account of infection control guidance, as we recognise our focus has to been on patients in the community who have been waiting for their care.

“A significant amount of work has been done by our clinicians to prioritise those patients who are in most need and we are operating at over 80 per cent of our usual capacity.

“We remain ever vigilant in how we respond once again as numbers of hospital admissions are anticipated to rise as the numbers of community cases increase, and would urge the public to follow the national guidance to help protect themselves and hospitals from the spread of infection. In July UHS launched the COVID ZERO campaign which is aimed at maintaining zero transmission of the virus within the hospital to enable the Trust to continue treating those in the community who are most in need of our care.”