Health leaders have urged the Government to go further with extra funding to help the NHS recover from the backlog caused by coronavirus as billions of pounds of new money was described as a good first step.
Officials warned on Monday that waiting lists for routine operations such as hip replacements and cataract surgery could reach 13 million.
It came as the Government said the NHS will be given an extra £5.4 billion over the next six months to continue the response to coronavirus and tackle the backlog caused by the pandemic.
But ministers are being urged to “follow up in its spending review with the extra £10 billion a year the NHS will need over the next three years to avoid patient services from being cut”.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced the new funding and said £1 billion of the amount would be specifically for clearing the waiting lists faced by patients due to Covid-19, while £2.8 billion will be allocated for costs such as better infection control to continue to protect against the virus.
A further £478 million would go towards discharging patients from hospitals to free up beds.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The NHS was there for us during the pandemic – but treating Covid patients has created huge backlogs.
“This funding will go straight to the front line, to provide more patients with the treatments they need but aren’t getting quickly enough.
“We will continue to make sure our NHS has what it needs to bust the Covid backlogs and help the health service build back better from the worst pandemic in a century.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We know waiting lists will get worse before they get better as people come forward for help, and I want to reassure you the NHS is open, and we are doing what we can to support the NHS to deliver routine operations and treatment to patients across the country.”
Health leaders welcomed the investment, but also warned that the Government would need to do more.
In a joint statement, NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor and NHS Providers deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said: “The NHS can now get on with the huge task it has ahead of what we anticipate will be one of the most challenging winters the service has ever faced.
“The task for the Government now is to follow up in its spending review with the extra £10 billion a year the NHS will need over the next three years to avoid patient services from being cut.”
They said the clarity over funding has come “late in the year” but it means hospital, ambulance, mental health, community and primary care services can finally plan their services knowing the budget they have available.
The pair added the NHS will be held back by major staff shortages that will make it much harder to clear the backlog, which could take five to seven years to clear.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Tuesday, Mr Taylor said he was confident sustained funding could see the backlog cleared in “two to three years. Without that … we’re talking a long way into the future”.
Anita Charlesworth, the Health Foundation’s director of research, described the announcement as a reminder of the scale and enduring impact of the pandemic on the NHS as it takes Covid-19 spending on the NHS to £15 billion this year, similar to the extra cost incurred last year.
She said: “It’s important that the Government recognises that this is only the first instalment of the substantial funding needed to put the NHS on the road to recovery.”
While British Medical Association (BMA) council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul described the money as a welcome “first step to deal with immediate pressures” but added that “the scale of the backlog is gargantuan and unprecedented in the history of the NHS”.
He said there are 5.45 million people on waiting lists, compared with four million before the pandemic.
He added: “What the NHS desperately needs from this Government is long-term sustained funding to give us the capacity to address the totality of this backlog plus give the NHS a chance to meet ongoing health needs of our nation.”
Some £500 million of the funding announced on Monday was due to go towards opening extra theatre capacity and utilising new technology to increase the number of surgeries that can take place.
The funding is for England only, with devolved nations being allocated up to £1 billion.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “This funding provides welcome certainty for the NHS, which has pulled out all the stops to restore services, while caring for thousands of seriously ill Covid patients requiring hospital treatment during the toughest summer on record.
“This additional investment will enable the NHS to deliver more checks, scans and procedures as well as helping to deal with the ongoing costs and pressures of the pandemic as the NHS heads into winter.”
The Prime Minister is expected to tie the recovery of the NHS into announcements on health and social care funding due to be made on Tuesday.