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Waiting lists for routine hospital care in England fell in February for the fifth consecutive month, according to official figures that show the NHS is still missing several key targets ahead of the election expected this year.

Patients were waiting for almost 7.54mn appointments, down from 7.58mn at the end of January and below a record 7.7mn in September last year, NHS England data showed on Thursday.

Some 305,050 people had been waiting more than a year to start routine treatment at the end of February, down from just over 321,000 at the end of the previous month.

The number waiting more than 18 months for an appointment in February also fell but stood at 9,969, underlining the health service’s continued failure to meet a target to eliminate all 18-month waits.

Both the government and NHS England have set a target to eliminate all waits of more than a year by March next year. In 2022, the NHS said it would eradicate 18-month waits by April last year.

The decline in 18-month waits from 14,013 in January came after NHS England said it had decided to remove patients waiting for treatment by community services from the overall waiting list.

Meanwhile, 74.2 per cent of patients were seen within four hours in accident and emergency departments in England in March, up from 70.9 per cent in February.

The data falls short of the target set out in the NHS recovery plan of 76 per cent of patients to be seen within this timeframe by March this year. 

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to cut waiting lists ahead of the general election expected this year, in which health is likely to be a key battleground.

“When it comes to the NHS, that’s the place where we’ve not made as much progress as I would have liked,” Sunak told LBC radio on Wednesday, acknowledging that “the waiting list today is higher than it was when I took office”.

Senior NHS doctors in England last week accepted a pay offer from the government, drawing a line under an industrial dispute that has dragged on for more than a year.

Ministers remain locked in an impasse with junior doctors in England, who walked out for five days in February and last month voted overwhelmingly to continue with strike action until mid-September.

Sunak said on Wednesday that the settlement with consultants was “very positive” and called on junior doctors to “come back around the table”.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, said Thursday’s figures demonstrated “how the NHS is working flat out to recover services and bring down waiting times for patients, despite enormous demand on services”.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said waiting lists were “320,000 longer than” when Sunak became prime minister, “despite his promise to cut them”.

“Doctors have said that patients in desperate need of care have been left waiting for 24 hours in A&E, while relatively healthy patients have been seen faster in order to hit this four-hour target,” Streeting added.

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