The number of operations cancelled at the last minute is continuing to drop, according to the winter report from the Department of Health.

The latest data shows that from October to December 2006, 12,622 operations were cancelled late due to non-clinical reasons.

This is 14.8 per cent lower than for the same period in 2005-06, and 33 per cent lower than in 2000-01, despite a 5.4 per cent increase in elective admissions since that year.

NHS Confederation deputy policy director Jo Webber said the figures were good news but there was still some way to go. 'In percentage terms it shows just how much work people are putting in to make sure operations go ahead.

'When put against the increase in elective operations it looks even better,' she said.

'The early improvements are easier to make but to get that last little bit is much harder. It gets to a point where the amount of effort you put in is not equal to the savings made.

'I don't think cancellations will be totally eradicated but I would suggest there is still some way to go.'

She added that work being done on increasing patients admitted on the day of an operation, as opposed to the day before, could further reduce cancellations.

Last-minute cancellations are defined as those that occur on or after the day the patient was due to be admitted, and non-clinical reasons include lack of capacity and urgent cases.

The report says: 'These [cancellations] cause anxiety for patients and their carers and the NHS continues to reduce them.'

Under the NHS cancelled operations guarantee, patients who are cancelled at the last minute must be offered a new date within 28 days. Failing this they will be offered a choice of treatment at a different hospital, paid for by the first.

'The new health reform levers, including payment by results, provide even sharper incentives for hospitals to avoid cancelling,' it says.

In February, the London Health Observatory released the Commissioning for Equityreport looking at ways that London could save money by stopping unnecessary operations.

Cancelled operations were third in the list of the top 10 unnecessary 'procedures' that waste London NHS money.

In London, gross costs for these 10 procedures, which included cataract surgery and tonsillectomy, were estimated to be£149m in 2005-06.

Download the 2006-07 winter report here