Government focus has moved from accident and emergency performance to the NHS’s 3.2 million elective waiting list, senior trust sector sources have told HSJ.

Trusts have been told to “redouble” their efforts to treat elective patients by the Department of Health.

The sources have said they believe this is an attempt to bring the waiting list down to the level it was at in May 2010, when the coalition government took office, before the general election in May.

However, despite a huge effort to treat extra long waiting patients last year the waiting list continues to grow and increased by 8 per cent in December compared to the same month in 2013. This includes estimates from the nine trusts that did not report their full waiting time data.

David Bennett

David Bennett urged trusts to write to patients exceeding 12 week waits

In May 2010, when the coalition government took office, there were 2.6 million patients on the waiting list. In the latest data, which covers December, the waiting list was estimated to be almost 3.2 million if the nine trusts that did not report their data were included.

Separately, FTs have also been asked to focus on patients waiting more than 12 weeks.

Monitor chief executive David Bennett has written an email, seen by HSJ, to all FT chief executives, asking them to contact patients waiting over 12 weeks and to make sure their waiting list data is accurate.

Trusts have been asked to focus on patients “who have already been waiting some time, while maintaining your business as usual clinical priorities”. 

He added: “At a minimum, I think all trusts should write immediately to all suitable patients on their waiting lists who have already waited 12 weeks or more and who have not yet been booked in for treatment, reminding them that they may have an option to be treated more quickly elsewhere and asking them to contact your trust to discuss their options.”

All FTs are being asked to perform extra activity, regardless of their current performance.

He wrote that “despite significant efforts in late 2014 to increase elective activity, too many patients are still waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment”.

There were 209,514 patients waiting over 18 weeks in December, compared to 184,456 in December 2013.

Mr Bennett said that while he recognises there are “a number of reasons for this” including a “continued growth in referrals, slower than anticipated take-up of the potential to transfer additional activity to the independent sector and disruption caused by operational difficulties in the emergency care pathway”, the FT sector should be “doing all that it can to help the NHS deliver on its commitments to patients, especially those who have waited the longest”. 

Trusts are also being encouraged to check the accuracy of their waiting lists. Mr Bennett wrote: “Our experience is that this often reveals that problems are not as severe as they appear.”

He said that weekly data returns “are not always as accurate as possible”. He added: “I would like to remind you that it is particularly important at this time that these reports do not give a misleading picture.”

Director of policy at the King’s Fund, Richard Murray, said: “After all this effort, for the waiting list still to be at 3.2 million just reflects how much demand must have gone up this year, which is the inflow from GPs. The NHS has clearly increased activity over the year but it’s still chasing as fast as it can because demand is going up.”

A DH spokeswoman said: “The NHS is busier than ever, which is why we’ve given it almost £1bn extra this year.

“Patients deserve to be treated quickly, so we want hospitals to redouble their efforts to bring down waiting lists.”

Government ups pressure to bring down waiting list