Special "surgery hubs" need to be established in England to tackle the "colossal backlog" of non-urgent procedures built up during the pandemic, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has said.
It said if the situation was not tackled, waiting lists would become "insurmountable".
The proposed hubs would allow planned surgery to take place in every region of England should there be a fresh wave of COVID-19 cases, or other severe pressures caused by flu.
RCS also called on the government to commit to spending an extra £1bn on surgery annually for the next five years as part of 12 recommendations which are "long and short-term measures designed to improve the future sustainability of surgical services".
Elective surgeries – such as hip and knee replacements – were cancelled during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, and 4.95 million people were waiting to start NHS hospital treatment at the end of March – the highest number since records began in August 2007.
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the RCS, said: "We need government support for a New Deal for Surgery to reduce the colossal backlog in elective surgery and to help the NHS weather future pandemics.
"Surgery must be available on the NHS all year round, not stop and start.
"If a dangerous new variant of COVID-19 takes hold, or another bad flu arrives in the autumn, we cannot allow surgery to grind to a halt again or waiting lists will become insurmountable."