Patients given choice to travel for surgery as NHS England set to 'eliminate two-year waiting lists’

Some patients feel like they're being forgotten, as Emily Morgan reports

Patients are being offered the option to travel for surgery by NHS England in a bid to “virtually eliminate” the list of those who have waited more than two years for treatment by the end of July.

The 'right to choose' policy has helped NHS England reduce two-year waits by two-thirds since January as the health service tackles a huge Covid backlog.

The number of people who have waited for two years or more to receive treatment has fallen from a peak of 22,500 in January to 6,700 as patients who remain on the waiting list are being asked whether they are prepared to travel to receive treatment.

More than 400 have agreed, with 140 booked in for surgery at a different hospital.

The NHS has said it will cover travel and accommodation costs to patients “where appropriate”.

The initiative means the health service is “nearing the target” of clearing the backlog of all people who have been waiting for more than two years for hospital care.

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “As part of the biggest and most ambitious catch-up programme in NHS history, staff are now on track to virtually eliminate two-year waiters by the end of July.

“But the NHS will not stop here, from delivering one million tests and checks through our newly rolled-out community diagnostic centres to new state-of-the-art same-day hip replacements, staff are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to treat patients quicker, especially those who have been waiting a long time.”

Three patients who had been waiting to receive treatment at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust went on to receive treatment at Northumbria Healthcare Foundation Trust more than 100 miles away, with a further two booked in.

Meanwhile, South West London Elective Orthopaedic Centre has treated 17 patients from the South West of England, and a further 11 are expected to receive treatment in the coming weeks.

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Patients who opt to wait longer, or patients in highly-specialised areas that may require a tailored plan, however, will not necessarily have been treated by the end of July, the NHS warns.

The fall in waiting list numbers comes after the busiest ever May for emergency care, with 2.2 million A&E visits and almost 78,000 of the most urgent ambulance call-outs.

Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “The NHS is making great progress in ensuring those waiting the longest get access to vital treatment as part of our plan to bust the Covid backlogs, reducing two-year waits by two-thirds since January.

“I announced a new right to choose for patients earlier this year and some of the longest waiters are already benefiting from the offer of an alternative provider where they can be seen more quickly."

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, told BBC Breakfast: “The NHS is doing incredibly well and we are seeing those figures coming down significantly week by week. I never like to say ‘Yes, it will definitely happen’, but I think it’s testament to the hard work of trust leaders up and down the country that we are nearing that point.”

Asked about the call for more nurses, she said: “We’ve known for a very long time that workforce is a significant challenge.

“I think one of the things we have to remember is that the challenges we are facing now, post-pandemic, were there before the pandemic and the pandemic has simply exacerbated them.

“So we’ve got funding challenges that have come from a decade’s worth of a funding squeeze; demand was already going up before the pandemic; we had challenges in terms of social care which we’ve got now and they are increasing significantly."