Britons could be waiting up to two years for NHS treatment due to Covid-19 infection control rules.
Almost half of heart, stomach and other specialists will be working at reduced levels for the next 12 months, according to the Royal College of Physicians.
Non-emergency NHS surgery was paused for three months in mid-March to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak. They have only just resumed.
Medics are now conducting fewer procedures due to the time it takes to scrub down equipment between visits and put on and dispose of protective gear.
Social distancing measures mean fewer patients can sit in waiting rooms or on wards at once, which could halve the number of people seen by a specialist per day.
The Covid-19 outbreak has sparked a huge backlog in people waiting for treatment, including heart disease and arthritis patients.
Hospitals were cleared and appointments and surgeries pushed back to make way for the surge in Covid-19 patients needing care.
Leaders in respiratory medicine and gastroenterology expect it to take two years to clear the backlog, while those in cardiology are expecting it to take about 21 months.
This is a best-case scenario, however, and a second wave of coronavirus could exacerbate the treatment delays, the RCP warns.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the RCP, said: ‘We need to be honest with patients that things will take longer and that we are working as hard as possible to restore services to pre-pandemic levels.
‘We cannot underestimate the extent of the work that still lies ahead for the NHS workforce, and the very real possibility of further COVID-19 outbreaks and additional waves, which would of course increase the challenge ahead.
‘Medical specialities are doing their utmost to keep up with demand, and will need the ongoing support of NHS England the Department of Health and Social Care to get services back on an even keel.
‘In the short to medium term it is likely that doctors will need to further prioritise care, as they have always done, to respond to the reduced capacity levels across the NHS.
‘We also need to be honest with patients that things will take longer and that we are working as hard as possible to restore services to pre-pandemic levels.
‘The public can also play a critical role by following social distancing guidance which will keep COVID-19 infection rates down allowing services to focus on the recovery of normal NHS business.’
At the beginning of the pandemic, specialist doctors were redeployed to ICU and Covid wards to cope with the surge in patients.
But tens of thousands of these clinicians have still not returned to their normal specialty, which is also delaying vital services for non-Covid patients.
In the middle of May, 32 per cent of RCP’s 25,500 members in the UK reported working in a clinical area that was different from their normal practice.
By the start of June this had reduced to 22 per cent, meaning one-fifth of the workforce were still working outside their usual area.
When asked how long it will take for the NHS to get back to pre-pandemic levels, 98 per cent of RCP members thought it will take at least six months.
Seven out of 10 believe it will take over a year and four in ten said more than 18 months.
Meanwhile, it emerged last night that patients will have to wait up to a year for hip and knee replacements due to the new Covid infection control measures.
Doctors are concerned that some patients on the waiting list are being prescribed highly addictive opioid painkillers.
Professor Philip Turner, the immediate past president of the British Orthopaedic Association, said hospitals were ‘re-prioritising’ patients awaiting operations, including hip and knee replacements, to identify which cases were the most urgent.
He said: ‘It may seem unfair to those who have been on the list the longest and who thought they were just about to come in.
‘I’ve been talking to some who received their admission letters – they’ve now been told ‘no’. But they may not be the ones who require treatment the most urgently.’
Professor Turner said that ‘sadly’, many would be waiting longer than six months, adding: ‘I think it could be up to a year.’
The latest NHS figures show the numbers of patients waiting a year or more for operations or other procedures has increased by ten-fold compared to 2019.
A total of 11,042 people had been waiting at least 52 weeks as of April, up from 1,047 in April last year.
Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said the increasingly long waits were a ’cause of great concern’, adding ‘a substantial number of patients in these categories are people waiting for orthopaedic joint replacements’.
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust think-tank said: ‘The reality is some people may end up waiting a very long time. All the orthopaedic surgeons in an area will need to look at their waiting lists and say, look, if we can do a thousand cases and we’ve got 2,000 people, who do we do?’
Under the NHS constitution, patients shouldn’t wait longer than 18 weeks for routine procedures.
The situation is being made worse because GPs slashed their referrals during the coronavirus outbreak, meaning many patients aren’t even making it on to the waiting list.
Figures from the British Orthopaedic Association show the number of patients referred for orthopaedic procedures in April was down by 80 per cent – 33,966 referrals compared to 176,033 in April 2019.
Professor Turner said: ‘To get back to anything like the throughput we normally would, we’re probably looking at two years.’
He added that he was ‘very concerned’ that patients were being put on opioid painkillers by their GPs because they were in such agony.
‘We have concerns about the sorts of analgesia (painkilling medication) they may be receiving. The other big controversy is about the use of opiates for analgesia.