The head of the NHS in England has hailed the ‘great strides’ the health service is making, as new figures show major improvements across long waits, urgent and emergency services, and cancer care.
The number of patients waiting more than 18 months fell to just 10,737 by April – down by more than 90% from 124,911 in September 2021 and by more than four-fifths since the start of January when there were 54,882.
Ambulance response times improved significantly with average category two response times now at 28.5 minutes and category one at 8 mins – both the lowest in almost two years.
Meanwhile, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the 62-day cancer backlog fell year-on-year, with those waiting two months or more down from 21,823 at the end of the last financial year (March 2022) to 19,248 at the end of this March (2023). This is down almost 15,000 from a peak of 34,000 in July 2022.
The figure fell by over 900 per week on average through the first three months of 2023, despite urgent suspected cancer referrals continuing to run at record high levels for the last two years.
Separate operational data showed huge progress on the NHS Elective Recovery Plan’s target to virtually eliminate those waiting 18-months or more for elective treatment by April.
Despite record winter pressures, half (49.6%) of NHS providers had no remaining waiters other than those who had chosen to wait longer or need complex surgery.
More than one in five (21%) NHS providers had completely eliminated 18-month waits.
Over two-fifths (41%) of those still waiting a year and a half had been offered treatment elsewhere but chose to wait or need complex surgeries, such as corneal transplants and spinal surgery.
Almost half (48%) of the remaining waiters are concentrated in 10 NHS trusts.
Since the start of February last year, more than 2 million people who would otherwise have breached 18 months have been treated.
The progress on the backlog came as the NHS was hit by the most disruptive industrial action in its history, with around 500,000 hospital appointments postponed since the start of December. Almost 200,000 appointments were affected during just the four days of junior doctor strike action in April.
The NHS also delivered a record number of diagnostic tests and checks in March (2.3 million) – up more than 128,000 on the previous monthly record.
NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: “The great strides the NHS is making on long waits, urgent and emergency care, and cancer services in the face of incredible pressure is testimony to the hard work, drive and innovation of frontline colleagues.
“Since we first published the NHS Elective Recovery Plan last year, we have slashed the numbers waiting the longest for care with 18-month waits down more than 90% on their peak.
“Ambulance response times are the fastest they have been for almost two years while A&E performance has also improved.
“And thanks to record numbers of tests and checks, the cancer backlog has fallen year on year for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
“There is still much work to be done but these are remarkable achievements given all the NHS has had to contend with – including the twindemic of flu and covid driving record demand that made for the busiest winter in our history.
“I am proud of each of my colleagues who has worked tirelessly to deliver for patients.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said:
“I promised I would cut NHS waiting lists and we are delivering.
“Reducing 18-month waits by over 90% is huge progress, and it is testament to the hard work of NHS staff who have achieved this despite one of the busiest winters on record.
“We still have work to do, but backed by record government investment and the ongoing efforts of the NHS, I am confident we will get patients the care they need more quickly.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said:
“Cutting waiting lists to ensure people get the care they need more quickly is one of the government’s five key priorities.
“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.
“Today’s significant milestone shows we’re delivering on our Elective Recovery Plan despite NHS strikes and the challenging winter.
“This comes after virtually eliminating waits of two years last summer. We are progressing with our plan including improving access to emergency care, with the latest statistics showing the quickest ambulance response times for the most urgent cases in almost two years. We will continue to work with the NHS to pull out all the stops to cut the Covid backlogs, backed by up to £14.1 billion over the next two years on top of record funding.”