NHS ahead of target in recovery of elective care, and mental health services back to pre-pandemic levels

Operations and other routine care are ahead of ambitions set out in April with mental health services back at pre-pandemic levels, NHS figures show today.

The number of people waiting over 52 weeks to begin treatment dropped by more than 50,000 in April, while by May, operations and other elective activity had already climbed to 90% of pre-pandemic levels, well ahead of the 75% threshold set out in official guidance.

Hardworking staff have continued to recover services disrupted during the pandemic, with 1.1 million people beginning treatment and 1.8 million diagnostic tests taking place in April, all against the backdrop of having cared for 400,000 seriously ill COVID-19 patients in hospital since the pandemic began.

In addition, the NHS has administered more than 58 million COVID-19 vaccines in just six months.

New data show cancer services have continued to rebound strongly, with more than 200,000 people referred for cancer checks in April following a record high the month before.

The NHS also faced one of its busiest months on record in terms of emergency care in May, with staff responding to more than 800,000 incidents – an increase of over 70,000 from two years previously.

In addition to increased demand, staff in emergency departments are having to work differently from how they did pre-pandemic, with extra time needed for applying personal protective equipment and performing rapid COVID-19 tests on patients.

Social distancing and enhanced infection prevention control measures have also meant fewer beds and less clinical space.

Professor Stephen Powis, National Medical Director for NHS England, said: “Despite the extensive disruption to care caused by the pandemic, it’s encouraging that today’s figures show routine operations, cancer and mental health care have now all rebounded sharply. Average waits for non-urgent care have fallen to 11 weeks, and the number of people waiting over 52 weeks fell by more than 50,000 in April. Mental health services are back at pre-pandemic levels, and treatment rates for cancer are also now back to usual levels, with nearly nineteen out of twenty people starting treatment for the disease within one month.”

The NHS is committed to restoring services to pre-pandemic levels and has recently invested £1 billion in elective recovery.

The Elective Accelerator programme was announced last month and will see a dozen trusts and five specialist children’s hospitals receive a share of £160 million to increase the number of elective operations they deliver.

The sites are being supported to implement and evaluate new and innovative ways of working to get activity levels back on track.

Treatment rates for cancer are back to usual levels with nearly 25,000 people starting treatment in April (24,963) – an increase of more than 4,000 since the same time period last year (20,574), and more than nine in ten people started treatment for the disease within one month (94.2%).

As recommended by the Cancer Taskforce, the NHS is also publishing a faster diagnosis standard for cancer for the first time, so that people can get the all clear or a definitive diagnosis within one month. This is part of the NHS Long Term Plan’s ambitions to catch more cancers at an earlier stage, when they are easier to treat.

With the pandemic taking a toll on the country’s mental health, important steps have been made in restoring services to pre-COVID-19 levels and there has been an increase in the number of patients referred for talking therapies for common disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Newly published data on mental health services show that Improving Access to Psychological Therapies referrals significantly increased to 159,140 in March 2021, a rise from 133,365 in February and from 108,330 the year before.

Waiting times standards have continued to exceed targets and recovery rates have achieved an annual high, remaining above the 50% standard.

The number of diagnostic tests, which include CT scans and biopsies, rose to 1,847,500 in April this year, an increase of 202% since April 2020.

The median wait for routine operations has fallen to 11 weeks, down from 11.6 weeks in March and from a high of 19.6 weeks last July.

Waits for diagnostic tests also fell, with the median now standing at 2.7 weeks, down by three-quarters after the initial impact of the pandemic in May last year.