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NHS waiting lists: Longest waits virtually eliminated as NHS marks milestone in pandemic recovery plan

NHS waiting lists

The number of people waiting on NHS waiting lists for longer than two years for routine operations in England has fallen from 22,500 at the start of the year, to fewer than 200, according to NHS figures.

NHS staff were today praised for virtually eliminating the longest NHS waiting lists waits for scans, checks, surgical procedures and other routine treatment, the first milestone in the most ambitious catch-up plan in health service history.

The NHS Elective Recovery Plan, published earlier this year, set out how the health service would address the backlogs that have inevitably built up during the pandemic.

NHS England said the first step in the plan was focused on those patients waiting two years or more by the end of July – except where they chose to wait longer, did not want to travel to be seen faster, or for complex cases requiring specialist treatment.

22,500 people waiting more than two years

There were more than 22,500 people who had been waiting two years or more on a NHS waiting list at the start of the year, and a further 51,000 who would have breached two years by the end of July have also been treated.

This recovery has been delivered despite higher levels of COVID, with hospitals treating more than 220,000 patients with the virus since the plan was published in February.

Praising staff, NHS England has said that this achievement is thanks to the hard work and innovation of doctors, nurses, therapists, physios and other NHS staff that has been reduced to just 2,777, despite COVID and other pressures, of whom 1,579 opted to defer treatment and 1,030 are very complex cases, as set out in the plan.

NHS England said staff are working hard to ensure the remaining patients who have not yet been treated are seen as quickly as possible.

The Government is concerned about how the NHS waiting lists backlog will impact their electoral fortunes at the next election as the issue rises up polling. Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay said: “Beating the COVID backlogs is one of my top priorities and the NHS has successfully delivered on the first major target in our Elective Recovery Plan. This is testament to NHS staff who have worked incredibly hard to get us here – despite the significant challenges.

“We are working hard with the NHS to get our health system back to peak performance, by growing the healthcare workforce, opening new community diagnostic centres and surgical hubs across the country, and investing in innovative technology to ensure patients can access the treatment they need while saving staff time.”

Innovation is key

With financial pressures increasing on the NHS, particularly in the face of rising staff wage bills, there is mounting criticism that innovation is being cut at the expense of patient outcomes.

NHS leaders have warned that money will need to be cut from existing programmes such as those designed to rollout new technologies and boost diagnostic capacity across the NHS.

Innovation is not just about new technology and cost, using new technology improves outcomes for patients and therefore reduces costs.

There is growing concern that the Government is cutting off its nose to spite its face and will cause further NHS budgetary pressures further down the line as it turns away from innovation.

NHS waiting lists - MRI Scanner
Concerns that NHS leaders are turning their backs on innovation and new equipment

A mountain to climb

Commenting on the achievement, NHS Chief Executive, Amanda Pritchard said: “Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our staff the NHS has delivered the first milestone in our Elective Recovery Plan.

“It has only been possible because the NHS has continued to reform the way we deliver care, using innovative techniques and adopting pioneering technology like robot surgery, and through building new relationships and mutual aid arrangements across systems to offer patients the opportunity to be transferred elsewhere and get the care they need as quickly as possible.

“The next phase will focus on patients waiting longer than 18 months, building on the fantastic work already done, and while it is a significant challenge our remarkable staff have shown that when we are given the tools and resources we need, the NHS delivers for our patients.”

Paying tribute to NHS staff for clearing the NHS waiting lists, NHS England’s National Director of Elective Recovery, Sir Jim Mackey said: “Reaching this milestone is testament to the hard work of NHS staff across the country, who have treated tens of thousands of the longest waits in the six months since we launched our ambitious recovery plan.

“From dedicated surgery hubs to increase the number of procedures carried out each day, to day case surgeries allowing people to recover in the comfort of their homes and ensuring treatment transfers can happen for those patients prepared to travel, NHS staff are doing everything possible to bring down long waits for patients even further.

“We knew the waiting list would initially continue to grow as more people come forward for care who may have held off during the pandemic, but the NHS is determined to make the best possible use of the additional investment to address the backlogs and provide timely, expert care to as many people as possible, and virtually eliminating two year waits shows we are continuing to make good progress for patients.”

However, as the waiting list for elective care continues to grow nationally, Deputy Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, Danny Mortimer warned: “This is an important milestone for the NHS whose teams have been working exceptionally hard to recover their services after the worst of the pandemic. They have been performing thousands of operations a week leading to many hospitals being able to clear their longest waiting lists even before the July commitment.

“However, with the overall waiting list for elective care continuing to grow nationally, they know that this vital work has not finished. They will continue to do everything they can for their patients, in the face of profound challenges and while also tackling other waiting lists around mental health, community and primary care which warrant equal attention.”

Chief executive of the independent health think tank The Nuffield Trust, Nigel Edwards, said: “This is a good achievement – but like getting to base camp, there’s quite a mountain to climb in terms of people waiting over a year… and over 78 weeks, which are much bigger numbers than the figure for two-year waits.”

Final thought

The surprise announcement today is good news for patients waiting longer than two years.

However, while the headlines look impressive, the warnings from NHS Confederation and other providers are dire. The winter is looking to be incredibly challenging for the NHS in the context of rising waiting lists.

The Secretary of State warned earlier in the week that there are “very serious challenges coming down the track in the autumn,” particularly surrounding NHS waiting lists.

With calls for a “real sprint” in September on NHS waiting lists to catch up alongside likely industrial unrest with the first nurses strike since 1988, these are real challenges for a new Government under either a Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak premiership.

Don’t expect there to be a queue for the job of Health Secretary in September…

NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission

To find out more about the NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission, created to provide solutions to the improved rollout of innovation within the NHS, please visit Curia’s website here.

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