NHS: ambulance times and 18-month waits for procedures down - but government still breaking key health pledges

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Official data shows improvement on some key NHS targets, but others have markedly worsened - with the number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment rising to a record high

The government has missed some of its key targets like eliminating 18-month waits for planned NHS procedures like knee and hip replacements, official figures show, but it has managed to cut them more than 90%.

New official figures released on Thursday showed government had been unable to fulfil a number of its NHS targets, including cutting waiting lists, and shortening the referral time for people suspected of having cancer. However, the data showed there had been steady progress in some of these areas.

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The numbers - from NHS England - showed 10,737 people were waiting more than 18 months to start routine treatment at the end of March. This was down nearly two-thirds from 29,778 at the end of February alone, and down 91% its peak, which saw almost 125,000 people waiting for treatment, the Health Secretary has said.

The Government and NHS England set the ambition of eliminating all waits of more than 18 months by April of this year, excluding exceptionally complex cases - or patients who chose to wait longer. But the latest data showed just 41% of those 10,737 cases were either people who chose to delay their procedure, or were particularly complex.

That meant 59% were routine waits. Nearly half of those waiting are believed to be concentrated in 10 NHS trusts, PA reports.

The government has missed some of its key health targets, like ending 18-month waits for planned NHS care, but there has been progress (Photos: Getty/Adobe Stock)The government has missed some of its key health targets, like ending 18-month waits for planned NHS care, but there has been progress (Photos: Getty/Adobe Stock)
The government has missed some of its key health targets, like ending 18-month waits for planned NHS care, but there has been progress (Photos: Getty/Adobe Stock) | Getty/Adobe Stock

In January, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also pledged to cut NHS waiting lists, letting people would get the care they need more quickly. However, the figures released on Thursday showed that the number of people in England waiting to start routine hospital treatment had risen to a record high.

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An estimated 7.3 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of March, up from 7.2 million in February.

The data also confirmed that the target to reduce the number of people waiting more than 62-days after an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer cases had also been missed, after the government and NHS England set the ambition of returning that number to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023.

The new data showed that the number of patients waiting longer than 62 days stood at 19,248 in the week ending 2 April, while the average weekly figure for February 2020 was 13,463.

However, ambulance wait times had fallen. The NHS data also showed that the average response time in April for ambulances dealing with the most urgent category 1 incidents was eight minutes and seven seconds, down from eight minutes and 49 seconds in March, but still above the target of seven minutes.

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Sunak said on Thursday: “I promised I would cut NHS waiting lists and we are delivering... Reducing 18-month waits by over 90% 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."

“We still have work to do, but backed by record Government investment and the ongoing efforts of the NHS, I am confident we will get patients the care they need more quickly," he said.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Cutting waiting lists to ensure people get the care they need more quickly is one of the government’s five key priorities." While the data meant some pledges had been broken, it marked a significant milestone that we’re delivering on our Elective Recovery Plan despite NHS strikes and the challenging winter".

“This comes after virtually eliminating waits of two years last summer," Barclay added. “We are progressing with our plan including improving access to emergency care, with the latest statistics showing the quickest ambulance response times for the most urgent cases in almost two years."

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He continued: “We will continue to work with the NHS to pull out all the stops to cut the Covid backlogs, backed by up to £14.1 billion over the next two years on top of record funding.”

But shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Rishi Sunak had "broken his promise" to end the 18-month waits for NHS treatment, "leaving thousands of patients in pain and discomfort for unacceptably long".

“This is just the latest broken promise that shows you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS," he said. “Ministers blame strikes, as if they are mere bystanders. It was their refusal to speak to nurses and junior doctors that forced them out on strike in the first place."

The Health Foundation's assistant policy director Tim Gardner, said that with services and staff under intense pressure, "patients continue to pay the price".

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“One in 10 patients with a serious condition, such as a heart attack, waited over an hour for an ambulance in April, with over one in 13 spending over 12 hours in A&E departments," he said. “Resolving the current pay disputes should help avoid more short-term disruption, so the recent headway made by the government and trade unions is welcome."

However, he did not think it would address the underlying challenges facing the health service, and those who work in it.

Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trusts have pulled out all the stops to cut by 90% the number of people waiting 78 weeks or more for care – a remarkable achievement against a backdrop of months of strikes, severe staff shortages and a yawning gap between capacity and growing demand."

“Staff and trust leaders deserve credit for continuing to work flat out to see people as quickly as possible and to improve the flow of patients through the whole health system," he said. "But there’s a long way to go to get waiting times and lists down across physical and mental services to where patients and the NHS want.”

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