NHS England is poised to “virtually eliminate” the list of those who have waited more than two years for treatment, its chief executive has said, as patients are given the option to be treated more quickly at hospitals in different parts of the country.
The number of people who have waited for two years or more to receive treatment has fallen from a peak of 22,500 in January to 6,700, after the Covid-19 pandemic caused waiting lists to mount.
Patients who remain on the waiting list are being asked whether they are prepared to travel to receive treatment. More than 400 have agreed, with 140 booked in for surgery at a different hospital.
The NHS England chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: “As part of the biggest and most ambitious catch-up programme in NHS history, staff are now on track to virtually eliminate two-year waiters by the end of July.
“But the NHS will not stop here, from delivering 1m tests and checks through our newly rolled out community diagnostic centres to new state-of-the-art same-day hip replacements, staff are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to treat patients quicker, especially those who have been waiting a long time.”
The NHS has said it will cover travel and accommodation costs to patients “where appropriate”.
Three patients who had been waiting to receive treatment at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS foundation trust received treatment at Northumbria Healthcare foundation trust more than 100 miles away, with a further two booked in.
Meanwhile, South West London Elective Orthopaedic Centre has treated 17 patients from the south-west of England, and a further 11 are expected to receive treatment in the coming weeks.
Patients who opt to wait longer, or patients in highly specialised areas that may require a tailored plan, however, will not necessarily have been treated by the end of July, the NHS warns.
The fall in waiting list numbers comes after the busiest ever May for emergency care, with 2.2m A&E visits and almost 78,000 of the most urgent ambulance callouts.
Pritchard added: “One of the benefits of the NHS is that hospitals can work together to bring Covid backlogs down together and so if people can and want to be treated quicker elsewhere in the country, NHS staff are ensuring that it can happen.
“Once again, NHS staff are demonstrating the agility, resilience and compassion that shows when they are given the tools and resources they need, they deliver for our patients.”
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “The NHS is making great progress in ensuring those waiting the longest get access to vital treatment as part of our plan to bust the Covid backlogs, reducing two-year waits by two-thirds since January.
“I announced a new right to choose for patients earlier this year and some of the longest waiters are already benefiting from the offer of an alternative provider where they can be seen more quickly.
“Innovations like this are helping to tackle waiting lists and speed up access to treatment, backed by record investment, and there are over 90 community diagnostic centres delivering over 1m checks and scans in the last year.”
Saffron Cordery, the interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said the health service was “nearing the target” of clearing the backlog of all people who have been waiting for more than two years for hospital care.
She told BBC Breakfast: “The NHS is doing incredibly well and we are seeing those figures coming down significantly week by week. I never like to say, ‘Yes, it will definitely happen’, but I think it’s testament to the hard work of trust leaders up and down the country that that we are nearing that point.”
Asked about the call for more nurses, she said: “We’ve known for a very long time that workforce is a significant challenge. I think one of the things we have to remember is that the challenges we are facing now, post-pandemic, were there before the pandemic and the pandemic has simply exacerbated them.
“So we’ve got funding challenges that have come from a decade’s-worth of a funding squeeze; demand was already going up before the pandemic; we had challenges in terms of social care which we’ve got now and they are increasing significantly.
“But we’ve also got this workforce shortage, which is incredibly serious.
“We’ve called on the government to establish a fully funded and costed long-term workforce plan so we can sort this out once and for all but we know there are big challenges there across the nursing workforce, across the doctor workforce and other parts of the NHS staffing structure.”