People will no longer have to face unacceptable waits of more than a year for NHS treatment unless it is clinically necessary, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced.
In a major speech, he praised hospital staff for cutting the number of these very long waiters from 18,458 to 574 in four years.
But he said that to comprehensively target long waiters amid increasing demand, the NHS will perform more than 100,000 extra treatments over the summer.
He has also commissioned a review of those waiting more than a year to ensure they are treated as a priority and are not made to wait for an operation unless there are strong clinical reasons.
Mr Hunt said:
“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.
“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.”
Like other countries, England has an ageing population which is inevitably putting pressure on the NHS. As a result, an extra 100,000 people a month are being referred for treatment compared to 2010, and hospitals are performing an extra 2,000 operations a day.
Despite this extra demand, the NHS has kept average waiting times below 10 weeks and fewer people are waiting longer than 18 weeks, the key target for hospitals.
There are also vastly fewer people waiting more than 52 weeks - 18,458 in May 2010 down to 574 in May 2014. This is a result of the government changing targets in 2012 to stop a perverse incentive which led to hospitals prioritising shorter waiters.
Over the next few months the NHS will be carrying out over 100,000 treatments to people who have been waiting more than 18 weeks, of which 40,000 patients will be admitted to hospital This will be funded by an additional £250m from the Department of Health.
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, the number of people waiting longer than 18 weeks will go up and 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. 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.