In January this year, Rishi Sunak promised that by the end of 2022:

“NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly”

So has he done that and how many people are still waiting for treatment?

FactCheck takes a look.

Has the government cut NHS waiting lists?

The elective waiting list is the overall number of people waiting for planned, non-urgent treatment.

In February 2020, just before the Covid pandemic hit, there were over 4.4 million people on the waiting list in England, according to NHS data.

The number of people on the waiting list actually began to fall in March 2020, but this is because there was a larger drop in GP referrals during the first wave of the pandemic, as many people stayed away from the NHS.

The total waiting list reached a low of 3.9 million in May 2020, including the reported waiting list plus the estimate for missing data.

But since then it has quickly increased. As of August 2023, the total number of people waiting for elective treatment in England is at the highest it’s been since records began, with 7.8 million people waiting for care.

Labour leader Keir Starmer pointed this out during Prime Minister’s Questions on 22 November: “7.8 million people are currently on the waiting lists. That is half a million more than when he pledged to bring them down nearly a year ago”.

But the prime minister drew the focus onto the very longest lists, saying “in England, thanks to our efforts, we have virtually eliminated 18-month waits”.

It’s worth saying that there was no such caveat in his initial speech on 4 January – the pledge then was simply to “cut waiting lists”, saying that “NHS waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly”.

However, six days later, on 11 January, during the first PMQs of the year, when questioned about the NHS waiting list by Mr Starmer – which was then at 7.2 million – the prime minister said “we are on track this spring to eliminate waits of 18 months”.

This appears to be the first time the 18-month waiting list target was referred to by Mr Sunak in Parliament since first announcing his initial pledge to “cut waiting lists” in general.

But have waits of 18 months been “virtually eliminated”?

A recent blog from the DHSC said: “The number of patients waiting 18 months has reduced to 10,201 since the peak of 124,911 in September 2021.”

But although the number has drastically reduced from September 2021, it’s worth noting that the 10,201 figure refers to latest data published in November for September 2023, which shows that the number of people in England waiting more than 18 months for treatment has actually been rising of late, increasing from 8,998 at the end of August and 7,289 at the end of July.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told FactCheck: “Cutting waiting lists is one of the government’s top five priorities. Our Elective Recovery Plan sets out a series of targets, starting with those who have been waiting the longest.

“We are making progress with two year waits already virtually eliminated, and 18-month waits falling by more than 90% from their September 2021 peak, despite pressures from industrial action.

“To improve access to lifesaving tests and checks and cut down on unnecessary hospital trips, we have opened 135 community diagnostic centres and are on track to open 160 by March 2024 – a full year ahead of schedule.”

(Image Credit: Shutterstock/EPA-EFE/Neil Hall)