Rishi Sunak claims the Government is delivering on its promise to cut NHS waiting lists – despite missing a target to ensure no patients queued more than 18 months by April.
More than 10,000 people had waited a year and a half, NHS data showed.
And the overall number of patients caught in the backlog of planned procedures grew to a record 7.3 million.
Health officials insisted strong progress had nonetheless been made, with numbers waiting 18 months down 90 percent from a peak of 125,000 in September 2021.
Some of the remaining 10,000 patients had been offered treatment at another NHS trust but declined, meaning the true number waiting due to capacity was around 6,300.
Just under half of NHS trusts had successfully eliminated 18-month waits. Half the remaining backlog was concentrated at 10 trusts.
Services were also affected by the most disruptive strikes in history, leading to around half a million delayed hospital appointments since December. The Prime Minister said: “I promised I would cut NHS waiting lists and we are delivering.
“Reducing 18-month waits by over 90 percent is huge progress, and it is testament to the hard work of NHS staff who have achieved this despite one of the busiest winters on record.”
Other key targets were also missed but there were green shoots in the data. They showed 64 percent of patients began treatment within two months of a referral, up from 58 percent in February.
The number of patients who had been waiting more than two months was down from 21,800 a year earlier to 19,200 at the end of March.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “The great strides the NHS is making on long waits, urgent and emergency care, and cancer services in the face of incredible pressure is testimony to the hard work, drive and innovation of colleagues.
“There is still much work to be done but these are remarkable achievements given all the NHS has had to contend with – including the twindemic of flu and Covid driving record demand that made for the busiest winter in our history.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said cutting waiting lists was one of the Government’s five top priorities.
He added: “Today’s significant milestone shows we’re delivering on our Elective Recovery Plan despite NHS strikes and the challenging winter.”
Tim Mitchell, vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said it was disappointing the 18-month target had been missed but this was “not for want of trying”.
He said: “NHS staff are doing the very best they can to cut the waiting list. But until there is a clear workforce plan to deal with the chronic staff vacancies that impede the day-to-day running of the NHS, the situation remains very difficult.”
Professor Patricia Price, of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign, said cancer data for January to March showed the worst performance on record.
She added: “Despite the heroic efforts of staff, cancer patients are likely to continue to die from waiting as well as from cancer itself.
“It’s simply unacceptable that two in five patients are waiting beyond 62 days for their treatment.
“While the powers that be might try and cherry-pick glimmers of light in the numbers going through diagnostics, it’s obvious that we need a dedicated cancer-specific plan.”
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