NHS waiting list falls for third month in a row, thanks to efforts of staff

The NHS waiting list fell in December for the third month running, while winter pressure continued to hit the health service hard with A&E and ambulance services experiencing their busiest ever January.

England’s top doctor hailed the hard work and dedication of staff as new figures show the number of patients waiting for elective treatment fell by more than 19,000 in December, despite the NHS needing to reschedule 86,329 appointments due to industrial action.

The new figures, published today, show that the overall Covid backlog fell by more than 6,200 in December for the third consecutive month and is now down by 164,898 since September to 7.6 million.

Monthly performance statistics show that the proportion of people waiting over a year for elective care is the lowest it has been since November 2020, at 4.4% of the entire waiting list.

NHS staff also delivered more elective activity in 2023 than in any other year since the start of the pandemic – with more than 17.3 million people treated.

The latest data also shows the significant demand for services in January, as the NHS managed the longest period of industrial action in its history with 6 days of strikes by junior doctors.

Weekly winter data shows that flu is at its highest point this winter – there were an average of 2,478 patients in hospital each day with flu last week, including 106 in critical care – up almost 160% from 961 in the same week last year. This is on top of 568 patients a day with norovirus and 3,563 patients with Covid.

There were 2.23 million A&E attendances – a record for January – with more than a 10% increase in emergency admissions from A&E, compared to the same month last year.

Paramedics responded to a record number of category one ambulance call-outs (81,866) for January, while 999 call handlers answered 828,000 calls; 26,000 more than the previous record for January (802,000).

Despite these record levels of pressure for January, ambulances responded to Category 1 call-outs almost 20 seconds faster than in the previous month, and nearly 6 minutes faster for Category 2 call-outs.

There were 10% more people were seen within four hours in A&E than the same time last year (1,402,354 vs 1,274,038).

The significant progress came thanks to robust winter planning that has seen more beds, new ambulances and the rollout of measures such as care traffic control centres, urgent community response teams and same day emergency care.

Bed occupancy remained high in weekly data at 94.7% despite the NHS putting in place 2,209 extra general and acute beds than the year before, including 99,876 core beds. There were 2,189 more adults in hospital last week than the year before, with 13,662 beds taken up by patients medically fit for discharge.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS National Medical Director, said: “It has been an extremely challenging winter so far with 2 periods of industrial action, including the longest strike in NHS history last month, so a further fall in the number of patients waiting for treatment and improvements in ambulance response times, is a testament to the continued hard work and dedication of NHS staff.

“We know the NHS is seeing more patients coming forward with complex and severe conditions, with the number of emergency admissions from A&E up by more than 10% on last year, while Category 1 calls are up 12% on the year before, which puts greater pressure on the services and staff treating them.

“The figures for last week demonstrate winter pressures continue to hit the NHS hard, with hundreds more flu patients in hospital every day compared to last year, and challenges discharging patients effecting bed occupancy and the speed at which patients flow through hospitals.

“As ever, I would encourage the public to use services in the usual way by using NHS 111 to get advice on the best service for their condition, and by calling 999 in life-threatening emergencies.”

Some 2.04 million patients received vital diagnostic tests or checks in December – up 9% on the previous year. The diagnostic waiting list was down to the lowest level (1.554m) since December 2022.

Almost three-quarters of people received the all-clear or a definitive diagnosis for cancer in December (74.2%) – more than 168,000 people, and nearly 14,000 more than last year.

The monthly performance data and weekly winter data can be found on our website here.