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HUNDREDS of thousands of NHS patients will be offered treatment at hospitals across the country to tackle long waits.
Some 400,000 people in England who have faced delays of at least 10 months are being invited to travel 50 miles or further to be seen.
They will be able to get treatment at hospitals with shorter wait times, including in the private sector, ministers said.
The waiting list for routine surgeries has increased to record levels over the last three years, reaching 7.75million in August.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: “It is absolutely right that we make the most of available capacity across the country to continue to reduce the backlogs.
“Giving this extra option to these patients also demonstrates the clear benefits of a single national health service, with staff able to share capacity right across the country.”
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The new initiative will see the longest waiting patients who do not have an appointment within the next eight weeks contacted by their hospital via letter, text or email.
They will be asked how far they are willing to travel — from 50 miles to the other side of the country.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Empowering people to choose where and when they receive their treatment will help tackle waiting lists and improve access to NHS care.
"From today, those waiting 40 weeks or more will be given more options to speed up treatment.
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"This is the next step in our plan to build a health service around patients and follows on from the roll out of Community Diagnostic Centres, surgical hubs and virtual wards."
Experts predict NHS waiting lists will surpass 8million by next summer — even if all strike action is halted now.
Medics have been on strike for the equivalent of an entire working month this year, with more than a million appointments cancelled.
The Government is currently in talks with both junior doctors and consultants in an effort to prevent further walkouts.
NHS bosses warned inviting patients to hospitals across England is not a “magic bullet” to tackle the causes of increasing waiting lists.
Saffron Cordery, of NHS Providers, said: “Long waiting times are a symptom of years of severe workforce shortages and underinvestment in the NHS.
“We need to see a rapid resolution of disputes behind industrial action which has disrupted vital work to cut waiting lists.”
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