Ministers admit it could take beyond 2024 to start getting numbers on waiting list down.
The waiting list for hospital treatment will not start falling for two years, ministers say, despite unveiling a plan to tackle England’s backlog in care.
There are currently six million people on a waiting list – one in nine of the population.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that number was likely to go up because demand is predicted to start rising now Covid pressure is easing.
He also set out plans to reduce waiting times for cancer treatment.
This includes the introduction in March 2024 of a new 28-day target for cancer diagnosis that had been delayed by the pandemic – it should have been introduced last year.
He said new diagnostic and surgical centres would be set up in the community, while extra investment – totalling £8bn over the next three years – would help hospitals increase the number of patients they can treat.
Mr Javid said the plan would not just “reset” the NHS to where it was before Covid, but build on what had been learnt and make it “fit for the future”.
But he said it was likely the size of the waiting list would initially increase as the numbers being referred for care had dropped by around 10 million during the pandemic.
It is thought people have been deterred from seeking help for non-urgent care, which covers everything from knee and hip surgery to treatment to improve sight problems and joint pain.
He said the NHS was working on the basis half of these “missing patients” could come forward.
The health secretary also promised to eliminate long waits of over a year by 2025.
Currently more than 300,000 people have waited this long, up from 1,600 before Covid hit.
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