The number of people in the queue for more than two years fell by two thirds from 22,299 in February to 7,553 in early June. However, separate monthly data showed the number waiting one year rose from 306,000 in March to 323,000 in April.
Tim Mitchell, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said there were “still big challenges ahead”.
But he added: “Today’s figures show light at the end of the tunnel for people who have been waiting excessively long for a planned hospital treatment.
“Surgical teams have been working around the clock to reduce the enormous waiting list which built up during the pandemic.
“As people return to the NHS, demand is only getting stronger. The total waiting list increased again in April to a record 6.48 million.”
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said there was reason for “realistic optimism” despite the mixed picture.
He said: “The hard work is paying off – it’s fantastic to see that the number of 104-week waiters has been cut by two thirds since the start of May and it’s a testament to the relentless efforts of staff across the NHS that this has been achieved but they know there is more to do.”
Figures also showed May saw the second-highest number of A&E attendances on record at 2.2 million – second only to 2.3m in July 2019.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) warned that thousands of lives were at risk due to the cardiac treatment backlog.
It called for urgent action to catch up with procedures to replace damaged heart valves in people with severe aortic stenosis.
An estimated 5,000 in England missed out on the life-saving care between March and November 2020 and further Covid waves mean the figure is now likely to be higher, it was said.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, BHF associate medical director, said: “Cardiac care can’t wait.
“The NHS desperately needs additional resources to help it tackle the backlog of care and ensure that heart patients receive the treatment and care they need.”
Meanwhile, hundreds more refugees from countries including Ukraine, Afghanistan and Myanmar, will be fast-tracked into NHS jobs.
A scheme sees those with medical training overseas take up roles as Medical Support Workers, working under supervision while they are supported to become registered doctors.
More than 120 have already started new careers and a further 500 will be recruited in 2022/23.
Sofiia Abdelani moved to England in 2018 after working as an anaesthetist in Ukraine.
She became a Medical Support Worker at the Royal London Hospital and recently became a fully registered doctor.
She said: “Getting a GMC registration to allow you to practice as a doctor can be a lengthy and expensive process but the MSW role supports you as you become familiar with NHS systems, gets you the necessary experience and helps you find your path to becoming a fully qualified doctor here. I can’t recommend it enough.”