Funding of £160m has been announced by NHS England to boost the health service’s recovery after the pandemic and clear record waiting lists.
A total of 4.7 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of February – the highest figure since records began in August 2007.
NHS providers in April said the huge backlog of patient care caused by the pandemic could take five years to clear.
As part of the multimillion-pound effort to tackle lengthy NHS waiting lists, virtual wards, 3D eye scanners and at-home antibiotic kits will be trialled.
It comes as research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Harvard University and Imperial College London showed there were 2.9 million fewer planned admissions, 1.2 million fewer non-Covid-related emergency inpatient admissions and 17.1 million fewer outpatient appointments between March and December 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
Meanwhile new data suggests Covid cases in England are at the lowest level since last August thanks to the vaccine rollout, with people aged 38 and 39 being invited for vaccinations from Thursday.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief operating officer, said: “With Covid cases in hospitals now significantly reducing thanks to the extraordinary success of the NHS vaccination programme, our focus is now on rapidly recovering routine services.
“Early figures show local teams are already well ahead of schedule, but we want to go further, faster, which is why we are investing £160 million to find new ways to tackle waiting lists.
Research suggests operations and other elective activity were at four-fifths of pre-pandemic levels in April which is “well ahead” of the 70 per cent threshold set out in official guidance, according to NHS England.
Staff are working to speed up the health service’s recovery by trialling new ways of working in 12 areas and five specialist children’s hospitals.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said lengthy waiting times have been a “worry” for patients and welcomed the initiative.
She said: “The importance of treatment being timely, to ensure the best possible outcomes, is well recognised.
“Effective communication with patients at this critical juncture is also essential, and we have been pleased to work with NHS England on developing principles for effective communication with patients about their elective treatment.”
However, a recent report by the British Medical Association estimated it will cost £4 billion to clear the backlog of patients in England in need of elective care.
Council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “So to trumpet a cash boost of £160 million is wholly disingenuous.”
He said the idea of “Super Saturday” clinics showed “a grave lack of understanding of the rocketing workload and demand already facing GPs”.
He added: “What we need to see is a workable plan that sufficiently supports the needs of the health service as a whole, and it is imperative that the allocation of funding and resources is reasonable and caters to the needs of primary, secondary and community care – all of whom have been completely stretched in the past year.
“Importantly, this must be underpinned by ongoing efforts to expand the medical workforce and to ensure that the utmost is done to retain doctors and NHS staff and give them enough support through the challenging time ahead.”
NHS Integrated Care Systems to receive funding between £10m and £20m:
South Yorkshire & Bassetlaw
North East & Cumbria Lancashire and South Cumbria
Coventry and Warwickshire
Luton and Milton Keynes
Suffolk & North East Essex
North Central London
Hampshire & Isle of Wight
NHS England said a coalition of specialist children’s hospitals, led by Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital Trust, will work together to improve paediatric services.
This will include Alder Hey, Sheffield Children’s, Royal Manchester Children’s and Great Ormond Street.