Tens of thousands of patients are expected to benefit from a £160m NHS investment aimed at tackling waiting list backlogs, as well as developing a blueprint for elective recovery.
The distribution of funding will include a high-volume cataract service, one stop testing facilities, greater access to specialist advice for GPs, and pop-up clinics so patients can be seen and discharged closer to home.
This follows on from early reports showing the health service is recovering faster after the second wave of the pandemic. Although NHS staff have cared for even more Covid patients in the second peak, hospitals maintained high levels of planned care compared to the previous year.
Average waiting times for planned surgery also fell by almost 40% from July 2020. The number of treatments delivered in January and February was also over 800,000 or 70% higher than during the height of the first wave.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS Chief Operating Officer, said: “Treating around 400,000 Covid patients over the past year has inevitably had a knock-on effect on non-urgent care, but our incredible staff still managed to perform more than two million operations and other treatments in the first two months of this year when the hospitals were at their busiest with Covid patients.
“With Covid cases in hospitals now significantly reducing thanks to the extraordinary success of the NHS vaccination programme, our focus is now on rapidly recovering routine services. Early figures show local teams are already well ahead of schedule, but we want to go further and faster, which is why we are investing £160 million to find new ways to tackle waiting lists.”
NHS England will trail new ways of working in a dozen areas and five specialist children’s hospitals. Selected groups of NHS trusts will each receive a proportion of £160m along with additional support to implement and evaluate innovative ways to increase the number of elective operations they deliver.
Those in greatest clinical need and who have been waiting the longest, will be prioritised by GPs, specialists and their teams, with an additional £1bn funding already available to trusts.
Other initiatives to help the NHS progress with elective service recovery will include:
- Extended NHS operating hours, as well as using the independent sector, and offer patients care in newly-designed surgical hubs.
- Devon ICS is repurposing the Exeter Nightingale to perform diagnostic tests, and patients in the south west will also benefit from the extension of virtual wards so patients can receive medical support from home.
- Lancashire and South Cumbria ICS is using AI to prioritise and identify the right level of care and support needed for patients on the waiting list.
Professor Neil Mortensen, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England said: “We welcome today’s announcement of funding for accelerator sites to explore and test new ways to get the elective backlog down. It will take both innovation and collaboration to reduce the huge waiting list that has built up over the last year.
“Operations were scheduled at weekends, ‘surgical hubs’ were created and groups of hospitals worked together providing ‘mutual aid’ to each other. Embedding the learnings and innovation is key to the future sustainability of surgical services.”
Dr Rebecca Steinfeld, Head of Policy at National Voices, said: “At National Voices, we hear from our members, 170 voluntary and community groups, about the main concerns people living with ill health, disability or impairment have. People’s experiences of delays and cancellations have been a big concern throughout the pandemic, and the lengthening waits for elective treatments are just the tip of the iceberg of wider unmet need.
“We welcome the NHS’s commitment of £160 million for innovations at accelerator sites and we also need to find innovative ways of working across organisational and sector boundaries to better support people whilst they wait and to get their problems addressed in the best way possible.”