NHS staff across England have reduced the number of patients waiting more than a year and a half by over a quarter in just one month, despite the busiest winter ever.
The total number waiting more than 18 months has fallen by 27% from 54,382 on 15 January to 39,903 as of 12 February.
Over 70 NHS trusts in England now have fewer than 100 patients waiting more than a year and a half, ahead of the ambition to virtually eliminate these waits by April.
More than 25 trusts have fewer than 10 of these longest waiters and 10 trusts have already fully eliminated 18 month waits.
The total number of patients waiting more than 18 months is now down more than two thirds from its peak of 123,969 in September 2021.
This significant progress comes despite more than 111,000 appointments in acute trusts being affected by industrial action since the start of December, with many operations and check-ups having to be rescheduled, and 20,000 more appointments in other settings.
The NHS has experienced record pressure this winter with the fears of a ‘twindemic’ becoming a reality– resurgent flu combined with ongoing Covid – and the highest ever levels of demand for A&E and most urgent ambulance call outs.
Bed occupancy remained incredibly high since November with over 19 in 20 beds consistently occupied and a high of over 14,000 beds a day being taken up by patients medically fit for discharge.
Some of the largest trusts have a greater total number of long waiters but are making significant progress in reducing their backlogs at speed.
University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust reduced the number of people waiting over 18 months by a half in the last month alone, from 5,659 to 2,883.
Staff at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust brought down their longest waiters by more than a quarter (28%) in the last four weeks, from 5,287 to 3,802. Staff there have boosted theatre utilisation, increased capacity, and benefited from support from other NHS trusts through mutual aid.
NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: “Thanks to the incredible efforts and dedication of our staff, we are continuing to make significant inroads in bringing down the covid backlog – this reduction is a remarkable achievement given staff have experienced the worst winter on record with huge seasonal pressures with the fear of the twindemic of covid and flu becoming a reality.
“Whether it is the expansion of surgical hubs and the rollout of community diagnostic centres benefiting thousands more patients this year or joined up working between trusts through mutual aid, the NHS will continue to innovate and adapt services so we can continue to make progress on the longest waits for patients.”
NHS national elective recovery director, Sir James Mackey, said: “Despite record pressure on hospital teams up and down the country this winter, including from the more than 110,000 appointments affected by industrial action, it is incredibly encouraging to see so many trusts making huge progress in bringing down the longest waits for patients.
“Whether it is the continued expansion of surgical hubs benefiting thousands more patients this year, or joined up working between trusts through mutual aid, the NHS elective recovery programme really does show the benefit of a single national health service with hardworking staff across the country coming together, sharing ideas and building on each other’s successes to bring down the Covid backlog.
“We know we have more to do ahead of our aim to virtually eliminate waits of more than 18 months by April, which is why we are working closely with the small number of trusts who have the biggest challenges, while innovating for the future with use of tools like artificial intelligence, surgical robots and online portals – making it easier for patients to manage appointments.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Cutting waiting lists is one of my top five priorities and this shows we are delivering on our promise to patients.
“There is still a long way to go but with two year waits virtually eliminated, and 18 month waits reduced by a quarter in a single month – our plan to recover the Covid elective backlog is working and we will keep building on this progress so every patient gets the care they need.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Cutting waiting lists is one of this government’s top priorities and we are making good progress on tackling the longest waits to ensure patients get the care they need when they need it.
“The NHS successfully met the first target in our plan to virtually eliminate waits of over two years and has now cut 18 month waits by over a quarter in just one month.
“As part of this NHS trusts are using innovative surgical hubs and surgical robotic systems to help drive up the number of operations and improve outcomes for patients.”
Earlier this month, NHS England announced that hundreds of thousands more patients will benefit from NHS treatment by next year thanks to dozens of new state-of-the-art surgical hubs.
This came on top of a major drive to reduce hundreds of thousands of missed appointments in February, with trusts asked to consider implementing short notice lists, improve cancelling and rebooking processes, and send more timely reminders.
In recent weeks surgeons at King George Hospital have unveiled the country’s first robotic colonoscopy machine, so patients at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust can benefit from a painless and non-invasive procedure that does not require sedation, meaning a faster recovery.
Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is on track to open three new operating theatres later this year at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, increasing capacity by a fifth to help cut waiting lists for routine orthopaedic operations – such as knee and hip replacements.
The surgical team at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton have been performing around 600 life changing operations a month at their dedicated surgical hub which is ringfenced to perform high volume, low complexity cases. Since opening in June 2021, the team have carried out more than 7,000 operations.
Milton Keynes University Hospital has successfully completed more than 450 cases using a surgical robotic system, used across a range of procedures including colorectal, gynaecology, general surgery, upper GI surgery and urology. The robot improves outcomes, upskills teams, and enables patients to go home sooner.
Eight men with prostate cancer underwent a robotic-assisted radical prostatectomy, which was the first time in the UK that one hospital has completed eight cases of this kind in one day at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust recently.