Patients will have to wait longer for non-urgent operations as a ‘trade off’ for improvement in other areas, the head of the NHS has said.

Longer waits can be expected for pre-planned operations, which include things like hip and knee replacements, cataract removal, hernia operations and laparoscopies, Simon Stevens said.

But the frustration of longer waits could be offset by the NHS being able to focus on hitting the four-hour wait time in A&E and better cancer care, he believes.

Surrey Comet:
Pic credit: PA

Unveiling a blueprint for the NHS for the next two years, Mr Stevens (pictured above) also said hundreds of thousands of patients would no longer be referred to a consultant by their GP.

Instead, GPs will be able to phone consultants to ask for advice, and their referrals would be scrutinised as to whether they are clinically appropriate.

Hospitals will also be told part of their funding will be tied to improving health generally - with staff urged to have a "quiet word" in patients' ears if they drink or smoke too much.

Other measures to save the NHS cash, already announced, include cutting the prescriptions bill for items such as sunscreen, fish oils, painkilling plasters, gluten-free foods and travel vaccines.

Mr Stevens admitted that waiting times were coming under pressure and that choices had to be made.

The NHS has a target that 92 per cent of patients should be treated within 18 weeks of referral by their GP.

But the NHS has not hit this target since February 2016 and performance has been slipping since then.

Mr Stevens said: "We are saying that we expect that the number of operations that the NHS pays for will continue to go up, but we recognise that - right now about nine out of 10 people get their operations in under 18 weeks - in some parts of the country that will be under pressure.

"We won't second-guess what that looks like, we want to try and keep short waits in the system where we can.

"We do expect and we do say here there is a trade off here ... We do expect there will be some marginal lengthening of waiting lists but this will still represent a strong, quick waiting times experience compared to 10 years ago, let alone 20."

Mr Stevens said demand on the health service was increasing annually due to a “growing and ageing population”, which had led to tough decisions.

Surrey Comet:
Pic credit: PA

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured above) said: "This plan sets out how the NHS will meet the challenges of an ageing population head-on and deliver further improvements for patients in key priorities - better cancer treatment, expanding GP access, and transforming mental health care."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Patients will rightly expect that those who are most in need of urgent treatment are prioritised but the NHS must continue to make sure that those who need routine treatment receive it quickly.

"As the document says, we will continue to expand the number of operations offered in future, and just last year the NHS carried out more than 1.9 million more operations compared to 2010."

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