NHS England missed a key target for clearing its elective care backlog of patients waiting more than 18 months, its own figures showed.
The data indicated significant progress made in reducing the numbers of patients waiting to start treatment after more than 78 weeks following referral – down from 29,778 at the end of February to 10,737 at the end of March. However, hospital trusts failed to meet the target of completing outpatient appointments and treatments for this cohort by the end of March.
NHS England said that 41% of those still waiting more than 18 months had been offered treatment elsewhere but chose to wait, or needed complex surgeries, such as corneal transplants and spinal surgery. That suggested that the remaining 59% of cases were routine waits.
More than 1 in 5 NHS providers had eliminated 18-month waits, officials said.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS England's chief executive, said "great strides" were being made on tackling long waits "in the face of incredible pressure" on the health service.
Record High for Waiting Times
However, Thursday's figures showed that the number of patients waiting after referral to treatment rose to a record high. An estimated 7.33 million people were waiting to begin treatment at the end of March, up from 7.22 million in February.
A total of 359,798 patients had been waiting more than 52 weeks to start treatment at the end of March, which was an improvement on the 362,498 at the end of February. Waits of more than 104 weeks stood at 559 at the end of March, down from the 1038 figure seen in February.
NHS England said that work on tackling waiting lists had been hit by industrial action, with around half-a-million hospital appointments postponed since the start of December. Almost 200,000 appointments were affected during 4 days of junior doctor strike action in April, it said.
NHS England wrote to trusts in January this year asking them to book appointments for all their 78-week cohort by the end of that month. The letter explained that "we are not asking that appointments/treatment be concluded before the end of January, just the booking process, so that we can all be clear and confident of delivery".
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who made tackling NHS waiting lists one of his five priorities for 2023, said on Thursday: "I promised I would cut NHS waiting lists and we are delivering." Steve Barclay, England's health and social care secretary, said: "Thanks to the hard work and dedication of healthcare staff backed by Government support, the NHS has now cut 18-month waits by more than 91% – a significant reduction from the peak which saw almost 125,000 people waiting for treatment."
Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, said the latest figures "lay bare the effects of mounting pressure on overstretched NHS services after one of the toughest ever winters and point to very tough challenges ahead". Sir Julian said the NHS needed "a surgical, laser-like focus on strategic, long-term plans to boost capacity and bolster social care", and reiterated demands for a fully funded workforce plan.
An analysis by the King's Fund suggested that it had been "another month of worrying statistics". Saoirse Mallorie, a senior analyst at the health think tank, commented: "While some progress has been made against key NHS targets, the statistics also illustrate the ongoing pressure across the entire health and care system, with 1.63 million people waiting for diagnostic tests and procedures. Additionally, while the number of medically fit patients waiting to be discharged has fallen, there are still 12,300 people delayed from leaving hospital."
Cancer Waiting Times
This week's figures also showed that the 62-day cancer backlog fell year-on-year, with the number of patients waiting 2 months or more down from 21,823 at the end of March 2022 to 19,248 at the end of March this year. That was a fall of almost 15,000 from a peak of 34,000 in July 2022, NHS officials said.
However, Cancer Research UK said that all cancer waiting time targets in England had again been missed. "The solution to tackling these delays lies in the hands of the Government who must show leadership and publish the long-awaited workforce plan for England," commented its chief executive, Michelle Mitchell. Macmillan described the figures as "unacceptable" and demonstrated "a healthcare system that urgently needs investment".