NHS continues to make huge strides reducing waits for patients despite winter pressures

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The number of people waiting longest for routine care has fallen, despite hospitals having to contend with high levels of winter viruses and strike action, new figures show today.

Thanks to the hard work of staff, the NHS is making significant progress against its elective recovery plan, with the number of people waiting over 18 months cut by over 9,000 in January compared to the previous month – and down almost two thirds on its peak in September 2021 (from 124,911 down to 45,631).

As staff continue to deliver on the most ambitious catch-up programme in its history, more recently published data also shows 18 month waits have been reduced even further, to 32,786 (up to 26 February) since January.

NHS efforts also saw those waiting one year for care cut to its lowest level for six months in January (379,245) and those waiting more than 18 weeks was down by almost 46,000 (from 3,051,661 in December 2022 to 3,005,703 in January 2023).

One-stop-shops in local communities are helping staff carry out more tests and checks for patients than ever before – with over 2.1 million in just one month (2,173,967 diagnostic tests in January 2023 – up from 1,912,658 in Feb 2020).

Progress on the elective backlog comes as staff contended with significant respiratory illness, with an average 7,080 beds taken up by people with covid and 2,972 taken up by flu patients each day in January.

The monthly performance figures also show ambulances attended 66,071 of the most serious calls in February, up one fifth on the same month pre-pandemic (54,648 in February 2019).

Improved ambulance response times for the most serious callouts seen in January were sustained in February, with Category 1 responses taking an average of eight and a half minutes (down from almost 11 minutes in December), while the Category 2 average was 32 minutes in February (an hour less than in December).

The improvements show the blueprint to recover urgent and emergency care is already paying off, with sustained improvements in ambulance performance, despite continued demand on services.

The NHS put in place extensive plans to deal with additional demand for winter, with millions of vaccinations delivered, more than 40 24/7 care system control centres live across the country, respiratory hubs, more beds and call handlers as well as community fall services.

NHS National Medical Director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: “There was no let-up as staff contended with significant levels of respiratory illness in hospital, which came at the same time as disruption from industrial action.

“Despite this, staff continued to deliver for patients, bringing down elective waits, treating more cancer patients and delivering more diagnostic tests for people than ever before.

“Not only that, but ambulance response times in February for the most serious callouts sustained improvements seen in January – this is a huge achievement – we are extremely grateful for the enormous efforts from staff, who we know are tired, after an extremely challenging few months.

“The NHS will not stop in its efforts to bring down 18 month waits for elective care and bring down the cancer backlog, but it is inevitable that if the upcoming junior doctors strikes happen they will have a significant impact on cancer care and routine operations that were scheduled to happen – as ever, we will do all we can to limit the impact to patients.

“We might be heading towards spring but with the current cold snap it couldn’t feel more like winter, and NHS services continue to be pressured, with separate figures showing that levels of winter viruses remain high for this time of year – there were more than 500 patients a day in hospital with norovirus symptoms last week – more than double this time last year.

“It’s important the public continue to seek care when they need it – using 999 in an emergency and otherwise using 111 online and by getting their vaccinations if eligible.”

Bed occupancy remained high throughout February, with more than nine in 10 beds occupied, while an average of 13,771 beds a day were taken up by patients medically fit for discharge – up a sixth on the previous year (Feb 2022 – 12,025).

Separate weekly data published today for the week ending 5 March showed pressures on hospitals remain high, with more than nine in 10 beds occupied and 551 patients a day in hospital with norovirus symptoms – more than double the same time last year.

The number of people checked and treated for cancer was also the highest for any other January on record – with 228,197 checked and 27,882 starting treatment.

The NHS has made significant progress on the 62-day cancer backlog – reducing it by around 10,000 from an all-time high of 33,950 last summer to 22,282 for week ending 26 February 2023, despite record levels of demand on cancer services since March 2021.

In the last year (February 2022 – January 2023), over 2.8 million people were checked for cancer and 322,000 started treatment for cancer; compared to 2.4 million checked and 312,000 treated in the same period pre-pandemic (February 2019 – January 2020).

The health service is also using the latest technology to ease demand on hospitals, with thousands of virtual ward beds open last month meaning people can receive specialist care from the comfort of their own homes, whole hospital beds are freed up for those who need them most.

Millions more people will also benefit from quicker care at home thanks to the boosted rollout of healthcare teams in the community, including taking more referrals from ambulance services, 12 hours a day, seven days a week across England.

Anyone needing healthcare advice is asked to use NHS 111 online in the first instance and call 999 in an emergency as usual.

All the above statistics can be found on our statistics pages: Urgent and emergency care daily situation reports 2022-23.

Source: NHS / Public Health England

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