Demand for care is rapidly increasing across the NHS, despite already record-high waiting lists, health service leaders have said.
A poll for NHS Providers, which represents health trusts and included 170 leaders from 119 trusts, found major concerns about access to care.
The poll forms part of the organisation’s submission to the National Audit Office inquiry into NHS backlogs and waiting times, and found that 96% of trust leaders believe level of demand is significantly increasing (64%) or moderately increasing (32%) across all services they provide.
This figure was 100% for ambulance trusts and 96% for those in community service.
All those surveyed also said they were concerned that rising waiting lists would only worsen existing inequalities in who gets care, including 66% who were very concerned.
It comes as new data from the NHS on Thursday is expected to show the highest-ever waiting list in England.
The number of people waiting for hospital treatment in England hit a record high of just over 5.6 million in July.
NHS Providers has already warned that clearing the backlog of care caused by the pandemic could take years, with 32% of trust leaders in the latest poll saying it will take three to five years.
The new poll also found 87% of trust leaders saying they were now seeing patients with more complex and acute needs compared with before the pandemic.
This figure reached 94% for mental health and learning disability trusts and 91% for community trusts.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Our survey reveals the sheer scale of the challenge that trusts are now managing.
“In a matter of weeks, we will face our first winter where both flu and Covid are in circulation.
“NHS staff are doing all they can to bear down on the care backlog, but the reality on the frontline is that even a small increase in flu, Covid-19 admissions or emergency care attendance will really increase the pressure on the service.
“The impact the care backlog could have on worsening health inequalities weighs heavy on the shoulders of trust leaders.”
She said trusts were working with partners across the health and care system “to manage waiting lists to prioritise the sickest patients”.
She added: “It is also positive to hear trust leaders are using digital innovations such as the continued use of virtual appointments where appropriate, and digital transformation of some manual processes to reduce the administrative burden on clinicians, freeing up more time to care for patients and to increase elective activity and manage waiting lists.
“But the key intervention NHS leaders tell us they need is new staff to support their plans.
“We must not forget that the service entered the pandemic with over 100,000 workforce vacancies. We need a fully costed and funded multi-year workforce plan sooner rather than later.”