The government’s drive to help hospitals clear their backlog of patients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment has started to pay off, the latest figures from NHS England indicate.

While the official waiting list figures spiked to 3.3m in August, figures for September show they have reduced slightly to around 3.2m, if earlier performance of eight trusts that did not provide figures were factored in.

The September results have been seen as a significant indicator of trusts’ progress in clearing their backlogs, after the government injected £250m into the NHS in June to help hospitals reduce their elective waiting lists.

Older woman in hospital bed

The government injected £250m into the NHS to help hospitals reduce their elective waiting lists

The King’s Fund’s director of policy, Richard Murray, said the trajectory of performance was now “looking more optimistic” but questioned whether this could be maintained over the next few months.

He added that current elective performance had not left any “room for manoeuvre” in the coming months.

“The NHS as a whole is facing difficulties on A&E that look very intractable,” he added, “They have seen an uphill slog on referral to treatment that’s proved harder than any of us thought it would be when it was announced in April, and the demand through the cancer pathways is rising quickly.”

“As you move into winter what you would want to concentrate on is the winter planning and consider how you’re going to find extra capacity and divert patients.

“You don’t really want to be thinking about how you are going to admit more elective patients.”

In his report to the NHS England board meeting today, chief executive Simon Stevens urged providers to deliver the extra elective activity, in part to “create headroom for winter”.

He added: “It is vital that hospitals now use this opportunity created by the extra £250m of funding for elective activity to get back on track.”

Mr Murray said Mr Stevens’ comments indicated he was not “holding out an offer of any more money”.

 “I am assuming behind all of this [work] a lot of organisations are spending quite a lot of money to try and get all their targets in the right place.”

The target to treat 92 per cent of patients waiting for treatment within 18 weeks, which is widely seen as the most important standard, was met comfortably at 93.5 per cent.

Waiting times expert Rob Findlay said that the sector’s achievement of this target bodes well.

“The incomplete pathways target now stands a reasonable chance of being achieved right up to the general election,” he added. “But the NHS would be wise to keep treating the longest waiting patients even if that means breaching the admitted and non-admitted targets.”

A Department of Health spokesman said the NHS was performing well despite “unprecedented demand” and is treating “the vast majority” of patients quickly.

In total, eight trusts failed to report waiting times figures for September, two more than in August. These were Barts Health Trust and Walsall Healthcare Trust.