NHS bosses have urged hospitals to send patients to be treated by private healthcare firms in a bid to reduce the increasing number of patients waiting for planned operations. The move has sparked claims that it will waste scarce NHS funding and that profit-driven operators will use the service’s desperation to cut waiting lists to charge higher prices. The total number of patients in England on the waiting list – for procedures such as hip or knee replacements or cataract removals – rose to 4.3 million in June, the highest figure for a decade. Many hospitals are finding it impossible to treat 92% of patients within the supposed 18-week maximum waiting time, which is one of the NHS’s key performance targets. NHS England and NHS Improvement have written to hospitals and clinical commissioning groups telling them to produce plans urgently to tackle the growing backlog. The letters suggest that that may involve private firms being paid to operate on patients whom NHS hospitals are too busy to treat.