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What could happen to NHS waiting lists in England?

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people waiting for NHS treatment in England has grown to 6.1 million - the highest level since comparable records began – and is expected to rise further as those who have missed out on care come forward. In February 2022, the government published the NHS elective recovery plan with an ambitious headline target of increasing NHS treatment capacity to 30% above pre-pandemic levels by 2024−25. The plan did not include a firm target for the overall size of the waiting list, owing to the many uncertainties around the future demand for care and the number of ‘missing’ patients who will eventually return to seek NHS care. Sajid Javid, the Health and Social Care Secretary, did say that if around half of the ‘missing demand’ returns, then under the NHS’ assumptions, the waiting list would be falling by around March 2024. This tool allows you to simulate how waiting lists may change over the next four years under different assumptions.

Instructions: Use the sliders or number inputs to adjust the parameters. Hover your mouse over a parameter to get more details. Click "Create New Scenario" to save the current scenario to the graph and create a new one. Click "Reset" to remove all scenarios from the graph and reset the parameters to their default. The default parameters are those we used in the middle scenario of our IFS Observation.

George StoyeMax Warner and Ben Zaranko

Date created: 11 February 2022

NHS Recovery Plan cover

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Note: These scenarios are for illustrative purposes only and may not be attributed to the IFS. Any scenario generated is an illustration of what could happen based on the parameters chosen, and does not represent the views of the IFS. We assume that the number of patients joining the waiting list grows at the rate assumed in the NHS long-term plan (3.2% p/a) until October 2024, and any ‘missing’ patients who return are in addition to that. We assume that treatment capacity grows linearly from 99% in February 2022 (its level in November 2021) to your chosen value in October 2024 (the mid-point of 2024−25) and stays at that level thereafter. We assume that treatment volumes are 96% of 2019 levels in January 2022 (the average of November and December 2021 levels). We assume that the missing patients join the waiting list at an increasing (for 20% of your selected time length), then flat (for 40% of your selected time length), then decreasing rate (for 40% of your selected time length) over your selected time period. This is an updated version of our calculator published in June 2021 based on our previous IFS Observation.

Source: Authors' calculations using NHS Digital's RTT Waiting Times. See IFS Observation for more details on how the scenarios are calculated.

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