The waiting list for routine hospital treatment in England has hit a new record high, but the number of two-year waits has fallen, new figures show.
Total waits for procedures such as hip replacements and cataract surgery stood at 6.4 million at the end of March, up from 6.2 million in February and the highest number since records began in 2007.
But the NHS England figures, published on Thursday, show that the number of people waiting more than two years has dropped for the second month in a row.
A total of 16,796 people in England were waiting more than two years to start routine hospital treatment at the end of March, down 28% from 23,281 at the end of February.
But this is still more than six times the 2,608 people who were waiting longer than two years in April 2021.
The Government and NHS England have set the ambition in the elective recovery plan of eliminating all waits of more than two years, except when it is the patient’s choice, by July.
However, the number of people having to wait more than a year to start hospital treatment in England increased from 299,478 in February to 306,286 in March.
NHS England said that increasing numbers of people were coming forward following the pandemic, with 1.8 million people referred for treatment in March.
It added that the drop in people waiting more than two years and more than a year and a half showed the NHS was making progress against its elective recovery plan goal to eliminate long waits.
Its national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Today’s figures show our hardworking teams across the NHS are making good progress in tackling the backlogs that have built up, with record numbers of diagnostic tests and cancer checks taking place in March, as part of the most ambitious catch-up plan in NHS history.
“We always knew the waiting list would initially continue to grow as more people come forward for care who may have held off during the pandemic, but today’s data show the number of people waiting more than two years has fallen for the second month in a row, and the number waiting more than 18 months has gone down for the first time.
“There is no doubt the NHS still faces pressures, and the latest figures are another reminder of the crucial importance of community and social care, in helping people in hospital leave when they are fit to do so, not just because it is better for them but because it helps free up precious NHS bed space.”
Meanwhile, separate NHS England figures showed that a record 24,138 people had to wait more than 12 hours in A&E departments in England in April, from a decision to admit to actually being admitted.
This is up from 22,506 in March, and is the highest for any calendar month in records going back to August 2010.
But the number waiting at least four hours from the decision to admit to admission fell to 131,905 in April, down from an all-time high of 136,298 the previous month.
Some 72.3% of patients in England were seen within four hours at A&Es last month, up from a record low of 71.6% in March but below the operational standard that at least 95% of patients should be admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours.
The average response time in April for ambulances in England dealing with the most urgent incidents – defined as calls from people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries – was nine minutes and two seconds, NHS England figures show.
This is down from nine minutes and 35 seconds in March, which was the longest average since current records began in August 2017.
Ambulances in England took an average of 51 minutes and 22 seconds to respond to emergency calls such as burns, epilepsy and strokes last month, down from one hour, one minute and three seconds in March.
Response times for urgent calls, such as late stages of labour, non-severe burns and diabetes, averaged two hours, 38 minutes and 41 seconds, also down from the previous month.
NHS England said there were more life-threatening ambulance call-outs and 999 calls answered in April than the same month in all previous years, while A&Es also saw the second busiest April on record.
It added that bed capacity was “constrained”, with almost 12,589 beds taken up on average each day during April by patients who no longer needed to be in hospital due to pressure in places including social care.
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at The King’s Fund think tank, said that unless the Government “grasp the nettle” on health and social care staffing shortages, patients will be left waiting in “discomfort, pain and deteriorating health”.
He added: “Long waits for emergency care, previously only seen in the depths of winter, are now commonplace.
“In April, over 24,000 people waited more than 12 hours to be admitted to hospital from A&E – a more than 45-fold increase compared to a year ago.
“Today’s data also show some ambulance service response times are still falling far below the national standards, even for patients with the most serious and urgent health needs.
“The waiting list for planned hospital care continues to climb, now standing at 6.4 million, with almost four in ten people on the list now waiting longer than 18 weeks, far below the target.
“The top priority for the NHS is to tackle the longest waits, so it is some comfort to see the number of people waiting over two years for planned care starting to come down.
“This week’s Queen’s Speech identified reducing the backlog of care as one of the Government’s top three priorities.
“But the reality check is that until ministers grasp the nettle on health and care staffing shortages, it will be patients who continue to pay the price by waiting longer in discomfort, pain and deteriorating health.”