NHS slashes longest elective and cancer waits for patients

The number of people waiting over 18 months for NHS care has fallen again despite continued demand for services, new figures show today.

Thanks to the efforts of NHS staff across the country, the number of patients waiting more than 18 months for care has fallen by more than four fifths since the peak.

Latest figures show a total of 20,101 patients were waiting over 18 months for elective treatment as of 19 March, down from 123,969 in September 2021.

The number of people waiting longer than 62 days since their cancer referral has also reduced significantly with 4,868 fewer people waiting last week (19,027 on 19 March) compared to just one month ago (23,874 on 19 Feb) and 14,923 fewer people since September (33,950 on 19 Sep).

Progress comes despite the significant impact of industrial action with more than 300,000 appointments affected since December – around 175,000 during the three days of junior doctors’ strikes alone.

There is record demand for cancer services, thanks to the success of public awareness campaigns.

More people than ever before are getting checked and record numbers are starting cancer treatment, with over nine in 10 patients starting treatment within one month.

Elective waits of over 18 months have been reduced by over two fifths (45%) in the last month alone, with over a quarter of acute trusts now having fewer than 10 of the longest waiting patients.

University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust has made excellent progress so far, with over 5,000 fewer 18-month waiters since the end of December – down 85% from 6,285 to 936. It has also managed to slash the number of people waiting longer than 62 days since their cancer referral from 1,543 to 444.

Since February 2022, the NHS in England has treated more than two million patients who would otherwise have become 18-month waiters to get to its current position.

NHS National Elective Recovery Director, Sir James Mackey, said: “Despite the impact of industrial action, covid, flu and a very difficult winter, it is clear that the NHS has done an incredible job on reducing the number of patients waiting 18 months for treatment.

“Ahead of the next milestone, these new figures show the remarkable work being done across the country with waits of more than 18 months now down four fifths on their peak, a reduction of over 45% in the last month alone.

“It is testament to the joined-up working across the NHS, with colleagues pulling together and widespread innovative measures being rolled out by trusts, that we have been able to cut the longest waits for patients”.

NHS National Cancer Director, Dame Cally Palmer, said:  “These new figures out today show the significant progress NHS staff are making in reducing the backlog for patients who are waiting longest, now down 44% from an all-time high of 33,950 last summer – despite record levels of demand.

“Last year over 2.8 million people were checked for cancer and 322,000 started treatment, making it a record year for delivering cancer care – this is good news as it means there is more chance that we are identifying cancers at an earlier stage, when they are easier to treat – this action is  ultimately helping us save lives.

“As ever, the NHS message is come forward if you have health concerns – it could save your life”.

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Cutting NHS waiting lists is one of the Prime Minister’s five priorities and we are driving forward progress with new one-stop shops that offer a range of checks, tests and scans closer to home, meaning patients are receiving the treatment they need as quickly as possible.

“Thanks to this, and a record £14.1 billion funding for health and social care over the next two years, the number of people waiting 18-months for NHS care has been cut by over 45% in the last month alone.

“As we continue to make progress on cutting waiting lists, we are using all the capacity available to us to improve care across the NHS and independent sector, and give patients more autonomy over when and where they are treated”.

Case studies

  • The Set for Surgery programme in Lancashire and South Cumbria is a unique new system that links up GP surgeries and hospitals, giving targeted actions for GPs to work on with their patients before an operation. It helps improve surgical outcomes and means less need for follow-up treatment and further interventions.
  • Working together to share theatres and capacity, six hospitals in north central London have reduced waiting times of more than 78 weeks by two fifths. Using data to make quick decisions, local teams can respond to bottlenecks in individual services by directing patients to other hospitals, making the most of all capacity.
  • Medical staff at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospital are using new technology to get a detailed picture of each patient’s health condition prior to surgery. Using the software, the trust has been able to identify previously “hidden” patients at high risk of chest infections, then intervene with ‘pre-habilitation’ to avoid complications from surgery. It has helped to reduce the average length of stay by up to three days.
  • Stepping Hill Hospital surgical teams are using a new ‘Mini C-arm’ scanner to speed up diagnosing and operating times for patients, using X-rays to produce real time images. The scanner uses less radiation than other scanners, ensuring safer standards of surgery, and around 500 patients a year will benefit.
  • Frimley Health’s Heatherwood Hospital in Ascot opened its doors to patients last March with 12,500 elective procedures delivered since then including more than 1,000 hip and knee replacements, up a fifth on pre- pandemic. The facility performs surgery six days a week and has trialled orthopaedic ‘super weeks’ where surgeons doubled the number of weekly joint replacement procedures from 40 to 80.
  • A team of doctors at Guy’s and St Thomas’ recently became the first in the world to use the Versius robot to remove tumours growing in the mouth. The less invasive approach speeds up recovery time and can mean patients need smaller doses of further treatments or avoid the need for additional treatments altogether.
  • Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS FT has launched a new High Volume Low Complexity cataract surgery list so that more patients can be treated over a shorter space of time. During a morning or afternoon of surgery, staff are now able to treat up to 10 patients – almost double the previous number.
  • The team at Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust recently treated a week’s worth of patients on World Cancer Day. With five surgeons and four theatres they delivered nine robotically assisted radical prostatectomies back-to-back.
  • Guy’s and St Thomas’ also carried out a week’s worth of operations in a single day through robot assisted cancer operations. The trust has run a series of high intensity theatre lists, reducing the backlog of elective surgery which built up during the pandemic. The new approach has seen great results, with eight prostate cancer operations carried out in a single day.
  • Cancer specialists across Cheshire and Merseyside are seeing an extra 2,600 patients a month compared to before the pandemic, thanks to initiatives that speed up waits and appointment times – such as a new nasal endoscope service, and a less invasive away of testing for oesophageal cancer involving the swallowing of a small sponge.


The new data on 78 week elective waits and the 62-day cancer backlog, as of 19 March 2023, can be found on our statistics pages.