THOUSANDS of patients are waiting several weeks longer than they should be for potentially-lifesaving tests at Great Western Hospital.

The pandemic has caused the gap between being referred for a test and having one to widen, so more patients than ever are not having tests completed within the target six-week period.

Charities that support people with cancer, heart disease and diabetes fear that longer waits could have serious consequences for sufferers as an early diagnosis can make a big difference in the outcome of their treatment.

Compared to this time last year, almost 10 times as many patients are waiting longer than the six weeks in which NHS rules state tests should be completed after a referral.

By the end of May 2019, 436 people on the waiting list had been waiting longer than six weeks - 8.3 per cent of all referred patients.

But at the end of this May, a whopping 4,202 patients (71.1 per cent) on the list were not being seen soon enough - and of these, 1,882 had been waiting for at least 13 weeks.

This is the hospital’s worst performance for May since comparable records began in 2014.

The figures come from reports carried out by NHS trusts on wait times for 15 key tests at the end of each month which are used to diagnose a wide range of diseases and conditions, including cancers, heart failure, and hearing problems.

British Heart Foundation’s medical director Professor Sir Nilesh Samani said: “Heart patients have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Not only are they at greater risk of complications from Covid-19, but they have faced delays to vital treatment and care.

“Hospital tests and procedures used to diagnose and monitor a range of heart and circulatory conditions are often among the first steps in someone’s treatment journey.

“Delaying them could have a devastating knock-on effect on the rest of their care, preventing them from accessing the specialist treatments they may need in time.

“This could lead to patients becoming more unwell as they await care and, ultimately, more deaths.

“The NHS is now facing a perfect storm as it contends with resuming services and tackling a significant and growing backlog of treatment, all while continuing to fight Covid-19.

“These challenges are great, but they are not insurmountable. Restoring and maintaining care for patients living with long-term conditions, such as heart and circulatory diseases, must now become a priority as we face a potential second spike.”

Ultrasound tests to detect tumours had the most delays, with 1,529 people waiting longer than six weeks.

More than 720 patients were left waiting for colonoscopies and another 371 people were held up for hearing and balances tests from the audiology team.

Lucy Young is the treasurer for CALM - the children’s cancer and leukaemia movement. She said: “These figures are worrying. The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better.

“We have had a few new diagnoses with some of the families we support but luckily, no-one seems to have been affected by this delay.

“This charity has a good relationship with staff on the wards at GWH, they are a wonderful team and have not stopped treating patients during this crisis.”

A similar delay between referral and testing is being seen at hospitals all over England as more than 570,000 patients were left waiting six weeks or more for a test by the end of May - the most for any month since the target’s introduction in 2008.

This is a big increase from May 2019, when there were 43,000 patients in England missing the six-week wait target.

Diabetes UK senior clinical advisor Emma Elvin said:“Anyone showing the 4T symptoms of diabetes – Tired, Thirsty, going to the Toilet more frequently, and losing weight without meaning too - needs to be tested urgently.

“People can live with type two diabetes for up to 10 years before diagnosis as they don’t always have symptoms. As there are delays in routine screening, we recommend people to use our easy online Know Your Risk tool.

"This can help people understand their future risk of developing type 2 diabetes and will advise on what next steps to take.

“If diabetes is left undiagnosed it can have serious short and long-term consequences. So early diagnosis and treatment are crucial, which is why Diabetes UK urges anyone who is experiencing any symptoms to speak to their GP surgery as soon as possible or seek medical advice.”

A Great Western Hospital spokesman said: “As we are treating much lower numbers of Covid-19 patients, we have now begun to safely restart many services across the trust, including surgeries and other routine appointments.

“Our thanks go to the community who have been so supportive of our staff, who have worked around the clock during the pandemic to ensure that every patient who received care for Covid-19 received it.

“Our waiting list has grown significantly due to routine activity needing to be cancelled early on in the pandemic. Waiting times, and patients not accepting or not attending their appointments, are real challenges for us.

“Social distancing has reduced our overall capacity in the hospital, which means we cannot run as many clinics or appointments as we would usually.

“We are doing everything we can to see patients and are re-booking appointments in order of clinical priority. We ask that patients attend their appointment or let us know if they cannot attend so we can give their appointment to somebody else.

“Anyone visiting the hospital should also ensure they wear a face mask or covering, follow social distancing requirements, only use the public entrances, and follow the one-way system in place. This will help us to keep people safe.”