The UK government has outlined its strategy to tackle a growing backlog for urgent hospital treatment that built up due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A new recovery plan aims to eliminate waiting times of up to 18 months by next year and will renew a pledge to give patients with suspected cancer a diagnosis within four weeks.
But the report warns that the NHS waiting list in England will not start to fall for at least another two years and could even double in size to 14 million.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid set out in the House of Commons how the NHS would tackle the backlog of care built up during the Covid-19 pandemic, including new targets for reducing long waits and getting people checked for illnesses more quickly.
Among the ambitions are:
– The NHS will “eliminate” waits of up to 18 months by April next year, and waits exceeding 65 weeks by March 2024.
– Waits of longer than a year will end by March 2025.
– No-one will wait longer than two years for treatment by this July.
– About 95 per cent of patients needing a diagnostic test will receive it within six weeks by March 2025. This target already exists but is not being met.
– By March 2024, 75 per cent of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer will be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days.
– By March next year, people should wait no more than 62 days between an urgent referral for suspected cancer and the start of treatment. This target already exists but is not being met.
About six million people in England are on the NHS waiting list for treatment, including hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery and tests.
According to the plan, if all 10 million people estimated to have stayed away during the pandemic came forward for treatment, and activity was not increased above pre-pandemic levels, the waiting list could hit 14 million.
Mr Javid said: “Assuming half of the missing demand from the pandemic returns over the next three years, the NHS expect waiting lists to be reducing by March 2024.
“Addressing long waits is critical to the recovery of elective care and we will be actively offering longer waiting patients greater choice about their care to help bring these numbers down.”
The plan will focus on “four areas of delivery”, including increasing health service capacity together with the independent sector; prioritising diagnosis and treatment; reforming care such as making outpatient appointments more focused on “clinical risk and need”, and increasing activity through dedicated and protected surgical hubs.
The plan also sets out how patients will be helped to make use of the NHS App to better manage appointments, bookings and the sharing of information.
As previously announced, about nine million additional treatments and diagnostic procedures will be brought in by 2025, while the admin burden on staff will be cut.
NHS England said this would mean that over a three-year period, patients would be offered about 17 million more diagnostic tests – an increase in capacity of a quarter compared with the three years prior to the pandemic.
The plan further promises to create dozens more community and NHS-based sites for surgical procedures and “convenient, quick diagnostic checks, towards our ambition of a network of surgical hubs and diagnostic centres covering the entire country”.
This is in addition to the network of 122 surgical hubs already operating.
Teams of specialists will be available to help patients prepare for their operations, and groups of clinicians and teams will be able to get instant access to test results, offering patients faster clinical advice.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The NHS is there for us all in our time of need, but the pandemic has put unprecedented strain on health workers and patients alike.
“Today we have launched the biggest catch-up programme in the history of the health service backed by unprecedented funding.
“These measures will make sure patients receive the right care, in the right place at the right time as we bust the Covid backlogs and recover from the pandemic.”
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the NHS was applying a "can do" spirit seen during the pandemic to address backlogs in routine care that have built up following the pandemic.
Mr Javid told the Commons that despite the NHS’s “exceptional efforts”, there was "a considerable Covid backlog of elective care”.
He said 1,600 people were waiting longer than a year for care before the pandemic but that figure is now more than 300,000.