Staff have been praised for virtually eliminating the longest waits for scans, checks, surgical procedures and other routine treatment, reaching the first milestone in the NHS's ambitious catch-up plan.
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 COVID.
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 very complex cases requiring specialist treatment.
There were more than 22,500 people who had been waiting two years or more 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.
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 staff are working hard to ensure the remaining patients who have not yet been treated are seen as quickly as possible.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our staff the NHS has delivered the first mile-stone 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.”
Sir James Mackey, NHS England national director of elective recovery, 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.”
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.”
Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “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.”
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Reaching this major milestone, thanks to exceptionally hard work by staff throughout the NHS, will benefit patients and is no mean feat given ever-growing demand and huge pressures on services.
“There is a long way to go with mental health, community and hospital care backlogs, and to relieve pressure on ambulance services. Now Trust leaders are committed to the next stage of the plan, including eliminating 78-week waits and cutting cancer diagnosis waiting times.”