The elective care backlog is slowly being addressed, despite staff absences, with new NHS England figures showing falls in the number of patients on lengthy waiting lists and an increase in the number of diagnostic tests carried out.
The number of patients waiting over one year for treatment had fallen by 12,000 in February, with the number of people waiting over two years for care also decreasing by more than 500.
Some 200,000 more diagnostic tests were delivered in February 2022 than in the same month last year, and 600,000 more over the course of the winter.
The percentage of people waiting more than six weeks for a diagnostic scan or test dropped by 6% during the first two months of 2022.
The elective care backlog grew throughout 2020 and 2021 as the NHS focused on the Covid-19 response. Early this year NHS England revealed a plan to slash waiting times, which promised no one would be waiting more than two years for treatment by July 2022. This would likely enable people to return to work sooner.
NHS care backlog
The backlog is also likely to have worsened because of Covid-related absence among health workers. In winter 2021/22, 3.7 million days were lost to sickness because of Covid.
However, the NHS warned it had seen an increase in demand for cancer services. Some 640,000 people were referred in December to February 2022, a 17% increase on the same period a year before. More than 4,000 more people started treatment for cancer during the same timeframe.
MPs recently warned that the NHS was not on track to meet early cancer diagnosis targets after the health service published a 10-year plan to overhaul cancer services. The MPs said staff shortages were partly to blame for their lack of confidence in its ability to meet the targets.
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Nobody should be under any illusion about how tough a job NHS staff have on their hands, balancing competing priorities and maintaining high quality patient care.
“Despite pressure on various fronts and the busiest winter ever for the NHS, long waits fell as staff continue to tackle two-year waits by July thanks to the innovative approaches to care they are now adopting – from same day hip replacements to dedicated mobile hubs for operations.”