The number of people in England waiting to start NHS hospital treatment has risen to a record high.
A total of 4.95 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of March – the highest number since records began in August 2007.
Data from NHS England also showed that the number having to wait more than a year to begin hospital treatment stood at 436,127 in March. It is the highest number for any month since August 2007, when the figure was 578,682.
In March last year, the number having to wait more than a year to start treatment was significantly lower, at 3,097.
It comes as health leaders called for a review of social distancing rules across the NHS to help tackle the waiting list backlog.
In a letter to Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, they asked for increased investment so the NHS can grasp a "summer of opportunity" and ramp up its ability to see as many patients as possible in the next few months.
NHS England said the service had seen almost a quarter of a million people with suspected cancer in March as services "began to bounce back" after the peak of the winter Covid wave. More than 230,000 people were checked in March even though 12,000 seriously ill patients with Covid required hospital treatment, it said.
Health chiefs said on Thursday that artificial intelligence will be used to decide who gets treated most quickly under NHS schemes aimed at tackling record waiting lists. One scheme in Lancashire and South Cumbria will be used for patients waiting for non-urgent surgery, with AI used to assess which patients would fare worst from long waits.
GP patients in Surrey will be given an option to be assessed by AI, with chatbots able to refer people to see a physiotherapist or mental health therapist, while elderly patients in Bristol will be issued with "robots" at home, with remote controlled technology used so consultants in hospital can make visual assessments of vulnerable patients.
The £160 million initiatives were announced by NHS England as health officials prepared to announce the latest waiting list figures.
Prof Stephen Powis, national medical director for the NHS in England, said: "The NHS is ahead of progress in getting back to its pre-pandemic levels for routine care, and in March delivered 300,000 more diagnostic tests than in the previous month, while continuing to help more than 12,000 seriously ill people with Covid and also making world-beating progress towards giving out more than 45 million Covid vaccine doses.
"But we want to go further and faster on this recovery, which is why we're investing £160 million on ways to tackle waiting lists and putting in place practical plans to speed up non-urgent operations, while also maintaining progress in vaccinating the country against Covid-19."
Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Harvard University and Imperial College London showed there were 2.9 million fewer planned admissions, 1.2 million fewer non-Covid-related emergency inpatient admissions and 17.1 million fewer outpatient appointments between March and December 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.