The waiting list for non-emergency hospital care in England has fallen slightly for the first time since the start of the pandemic, to 7.19mn from 7.21mn people, as ministers face pressure to halt a wave of strike action by offering more money to health staff.
NHS England said it had written to hospital trusts asking them to book in all remaining patients waiting more than 18 months for their appointment or treatment by the end of March, as it seeks to fulfil a pledge to tackle long waits.
However, the strain on the service was also laid bare by the latest official data, which shows record numbers of people attended A&E departments. The figure for the most serious emergency ambulance call outs in December was also the highest on record at 101,099 — almost a fifth higher than the previous record.
Call handlers answered more 999 calls than ever before, up one-fifth compared to pre-pandemic.
NHS national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said staff had responded to record A&E attendances, 999 calls and emergency ambulance call outs as the “twindemic” of flu and Covid-19 led to unprecedented levels of respiratory illness in hospitals.
But as they did so “they also continued to deliver for patients, with more people than ever before receiving diagnostic tests and cancer treatment”.
The NHS would “keep its foot on the accelerator” to continue to make progress on the treatment backlog, he added.
Separate data showed the time to respond to an ambulance call out was also at record levels. In December, the mean average response time for the most urgent category one calls — defined as life-threatening emergencies — was 10 minutes 57 seconds, and the 90th centile was 19:25, both easily the longest since the category was introduced in 2017. The standards are seven and 15 minutes, respectively.
For category two calls, which can include suspected strokes and heart attacks, the average response time in England last month was more than an hour and a half and the 90th centile was almost three and three quarter hours, each more than 50 per cent longer than the previous longest monthly figures recorded.