The health secretary has announced a “managed breach” of key waiting times targets for several months while the service treats extra patients to tackle its backlog.
Jeremy Hunt was also expected today to announce a review into why some patients - 574 according to the most recent figures - are waiting longer than a year for treatment.
Mr Hunt was due to speak in Surrey this morning.
He was expected to say that, following the announcement in June of £250m additional funding for elective care, “more than 100,000 extra treatments” would be carried out “over the summer”.
The most recent elective performance figures, for May, revealed the English waiting list had exceeded 3 million, for the first time since March 2008.
The additional funding is designed to pay for extra treatments to reduce the list.
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Hospitals and commissioners have been encouraged by national officials to spend most of the money in July and August.
They have been told to reduce lists by September so targets are met in that month, according to documents seen by HSJ.
Focusing on reducing the list backlog means hospitals will have to treat many patients who have already waited longer than 18 weeks, therefore they are very likely to breach the headline national inpatient target for at least 90 per cent of those who are treated to have waited less than 18 weeks.
A DH statement said: “Because operations on longer waiters are often more complex and difficult, they take more time and resources.
“This means that over the next few months… there will be a managed breach of the target. However, by the end of the year the NHS will start meeting the target again.
“The NHS will also conduct an immediate casework review to investigate every person waiting that is over or close to 52 weeks [waiting]. It will make treating these waits a priority unless there are strong clinical reasons for the wait or the patient chooses to wait for longer.”
Mr Hunt was expected in his speech to praise hospital staff for cutting the number of people waiting longer than a year.
This has fallen from 18,458 to 574 in four years.
Mr Hunt is expected to say: “No one, except in exceptional circumstances, should have to wait more than a year.
“We need targets that help patients get treatment when they need it - not targets followed blindly with no regard for the impact on individuals.
“[We need] an NHS confident that - in the end - it will continue to meet the huge challenges ahead if it leaves room, amongst many loud, competing pressures, for the quietest but most important voice of all: that of the patient.”
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said: “The NHS has made huge progress over the past decade in slashing long waits, so the median wait for patients having an operation is now under 10 weeks.
“To lock in that achievement - and go further in eliminating the longest waits - CCGs are now using earmarked extra funding to commission more elective surgery. As a result they expect their local hospitals to use the summer and early autumn to ensure they can then meet the performance standards which NHS patients are entitled to.”
Shadow health minister Liz Kendall, responding to the speech, said: “David Cameron promised to protect patient care, but instead he has lost control of waiting times. The number of people waiting more than 18 weeks for their treatment has increased by 50 per cent since 2010, and the cancer waiting time target has been missed for the first time ever.”
Foundation Trust Network chief executive Chris Hopson said: “Our members are already using the extra funding to reduce waiting lists which is good for patients and the NHS.
“The idea of a ‘managed breach’ is a sensible and welcome approach that ensures we focus on reducing waiting times for patients and recognises the growing pressure on the NHS.
“However, it is essential that the NHS moves away from short term injections of funding as it’s an inefficient use of resources. Far better that we move permanently to new and sustainable models of care that are appropriately funded, with all parts of the NHS including GPs, community and ambulance services playing their part in helping to manage the increased demand the NHS faces.”