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NHS waiting list falls again amid change in counting method

Staff on a NHS hospital ward (PA)
Staff on a NHS hospital ward (PA)

The waiting list for routine hospital treatment in England has fallen for the fifth month in a row, new figures have revealed.

An estimated 7.54 million treatments were waiting to be carried out at the end of February – relating to 6.29 million patients – down slightly from 7.58 million treatments and 6.32 million patients at the end of January, NHS England said.

It comes amid a change to way the list is counted, with community paediatric waits no longer included.

As a result, about 36,000 treatments have been removed from the total.

With this considered, February’s waiting list remained stable compared to the previous month, according to NHS England.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “A drop of almost 200,000 in the last five months shows what the NHS can do for patients. Had there been no strike action, an extra 430,000 patients could have been treated.

“We still have more work to do, but our plan is working.”

Junior doctors in England walked out for four days at the end of February.

However, Labour highlighted that waiting lists are still higher than when Mr Sunak pledged to bring them down at the start of 2023.

(PA Graphics)

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting claimed the Prime Minister has “failed on the NHS”.

“Waiting lists are still 320,000 longer than when he became Prime Minister, despite his promise to cut them,” he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey added: “Rishi Sunak is living in a parallel universe if he thinks our National Health Service is recovering.”

Elsewhere, there were 253,025 urgent cancer referrals made by GPs during February, up from 249,787 in January and also up year-on-year from 229,769 in February 2023.

(PA Graphics)

Some 78.1% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer were diagnosed or had the disease ruled out within 28 days, up sharply from 70.9% the previous month.

It is the first time the NHS England target of 75% has been exceeded.

Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said “this is just one part of the equation”.

The proportion of patients facing long waits for treatment remained well below the 85% target.

Some 63.9% of patients waited longer than 62 days from an urgent suspected cancer referral or consultant upgrade to their first definitive treatment for the disease in February, up from 62.3% in January.

Mr Patel added: “Hardworking healthcare professionals across England are running on empty, doing everything they can in a system that needs urgent reform.

“This can’t go on. It’s time the UK Government provided a long-term cancer strategy to ensure everybody with a cancer diagnosis gets the support they need when they need it.”

Oncologist Professor Pat Price, co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign, said: “Cancer treatment capacity is beyond breaking point.

“What makes this frustration intolerable is when ministers and NHS leaders seem to suggest that everything is in hand because we are diagnosing more cancer patients.

“But what good is a cancer diagnosis if we don’t treat the patients on time?

“The stark reality is that without a greater priority on treatment, these diagnosed patients just pile up on record waiting lists. If ever there was a time to get a grip on the situation and deliver a cancer plan backed by investment, it is now.”

The NHS recovery plan target to admit, transfer or discharge 76% of patients attending A&E within four hours was also not met.

Dr Tim Cooksley, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said this comes “with a sense of tragic inevitability and predictability”.

“This is despite a range of short-term incentives and initiatives implemented with a desperate hope of hitting this unambitious metric,” he added.

“Crucially this has focused on less urgent cases, with the sickest and most vulnerable patients waiting longer – which is clinically illogical.”

Some 74.2% of patients in England were seen within four hours in A&Es in March, up from 70.9% in February and the highest figure since April 2023.

The number of people waiting more than 12 hours in A&E departments in England from a decision to admit to actually being admitted was 42,968 in March, down from 44,417 in February and 54,308 in January, which was the second highest figure on record.

The number waiting at least four hours from the decision to admit to admission has risen slightly, from 139,458 in February to 140,181 in March.

(PA Graphics)

NHS national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said the latest health service performance data “demonstrates once again how the NHS is working flat out to recover services” despite “enormous demand”.

He added that industrial action “has had a significant impact” on elective recovery.

Sir Stephen said “there is further to go” but “it is clear the NHS is treating more patients more quickly and we have announced new ambitions for this financial year to build on the improvements made so far”.

The average response time for ambulances dealing with the most urgent incidents in March – defined as calls from people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries – was eight minutes and 20 seconds.

999 staff paid miscarriage bereavement leave
Ambulance response times for urgent cases improved slightly in March, but remained above their target of seven minutes (Aaron Chown/PA)

This is down slightly from eight minutes and 25 seconds in February, but is above the target standard response time of seven minutes.

Ambulances took an average of 33 minutes and 50 seconds last month to respond to emergency calls such as heart attacks, strokes and sepsis.

This is down from 36 minutes and 20 seconds in February, but below the target of 18 minutes.

Danielle Jefferies, senior analyst at The King’s Fund, warned that the NHS “is stuck in a cycle of poor performance”.

“The narrative of waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive when a person has had a stroke has become normalised,” she added.

(PA Graphics)

Tim Gardner, assistant director of policy at think tank the Health Foundation said the NHS workforce “is under immense strain”.

He added: “And while ministers have been quick to blame long waits on industrial action, our analysis last year found the strikes have only directly resulted in a small increase in the overall waiting list.

“Without bold, decisive action, the long-term problems facing the NHS won’t go away.

“If the next government wants to turn the tide then a commitment to stable, long-term investment is needed, alongside boosting the workforce and a renewed drive to increase productivity.”