The number of people waiting over the 18-week target for elective surgery will double to reach nearly one million in six years, according to new analysis by the NHS Partners Network (NHSPN).

According to its analysis of NHS waiting times in England, without ‘urgent action’ the number of people on the waiting list for surgery will hit 5.6 million by March 2024, coinciding with the end of the government’s five-year NHS funding period.

The health services’ target for 92% of patients to be treated within 18 weeks has not been met for more than two years, while the number of patients waiting over the target reached 500,000 at the end of April.

Tackling waiting lists must be a ‘key priority’ of the forthcoming ten-year plan for the health service and NHS hospitals operating at near to full capacity should make use of ‘significant’ spare capacity in the independent sector to help ease growing waiting lists, the representative body for independent healthcare providers has said.

Chief executive David Hare said: ‘These worrying figures come as the NHS develops it’s ten-year plan over the summer where the government has ordered that the health service gets back on the path to delivering agreed performance standards.’

However, he said the figures ‘yet again’ demonstrate the ‘desperate shortage’ of elective capacity in the NHS, and said patients should be encouraged ‘to be more sharp elbowed’ in accessing the quickest possible treatment and ‘exercising their legal rights to choose where they receive their NHS care’.

This includes independent sector providers who offer services to patients paid for at NHS prices and to NHS standards, he said.

‘As the NHS develops its ten-year plan for the health service it is vital that improving access to surgery such as hip and knee operations and cataracts is a priority. If we don’t grasp this opportunity then patients will be left facing unacceptably long waits for treatment, leaving millions of people in unnecessary pain and allowing more complex medical conditions to potentially develop.

‘NHS providers alone will not be able to meet this rising demand for elective care and it’s important that the significant spare capacity in the independent sector is utilised to help ensure patients can be treated as quickly as possible,’ said Hare.