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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
Row over waiting list claims
NHS nurses
The NHS has been set a range of targets
A claim that the government has all but achieved its target of ensuring that nobody has to wait more than 15 months for in-patient NHS treatment has been disputed by the Tories.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn announced on Wednesday that at the end of March just two patients had been waiting more than 15 months for treatment - and in both cases there were special circumstances.

However, the Tories say they have evidence of at least another two patients who have been waiting as long.

These are:

  • an 80-year-old patient in the West Midlands who has been on the waiting list for orthopaedic treatment since 10 January 2001
  • a 71-year-old patient in Southern England who has been awaiting a hip replacement since 10 July 2000

Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox said: "These two cases show clearly that the government's claims that only two patients are waiting 15 months or more are a complete fabrication.

Target progress
28 out of 32 ambulance services responded to the most urgent calls within eight minutes
The number of patients facing delayed hospital discharge fell from 6,200 on any one day in September 2001 to 4,500 at the end of March
"The public can be entirely forgiven for totally discounting any claims the government makes in the future about meeting targets."

The Tories' claims have been dismissed by the government, which says its figures are based on the lastest information from NHS Trusts.

Figures rushed out

The figures on NHS performance were not due to be published for several weeks, but they were rushed out ahead of next week's budget.

Ministers say they show that increased investment in the NHS is beginning to pay dividends.

Proof that the government is beginning to turn the health service around would also help Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is expected to announce tax increases to fund still greater investment in the NHS.

The promise to that no patient would have to wait more than 15 months for hospital treatment was a key pledge of the government's NHS Plan published two years ago.

At the end of March 2001, 10,400 patients had waited more than 15 months for treatment.

Mr Milburn also revealed that a second key target - to ensure nobody waits more than 26 weeks to see a hospital specialist for the first time - had only narrowly been missed by 500 patients.

A year ago the figure waiting longer than this was 81,800.

Target progress
75% of A&E patients are seen, discharged or admitted within 4 hours
60% of patients see their GP within 48 hours
Ministers have pledged that in-patient waiting times will be cut to maximum of six months by March 2005.

Seven out of 10 patients are already treated within three months. The average waits for all in-patients is down from 4.3 months to 4.1 months.

Target culture

The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Dr Evan Harris, criticised the government's creation of a "target culture".

He said: "The government is obsessed with setting hundreds of centrally driven targets.

"Targets tie the hands of doctors and nurses, forcing them to jump whenever Whitehall says so, and distort clinical priorities.

"We should have patient-centred care, not market-driven care."

Mike Stone, the chief executive of the Patients Association, said: "If you speak to patients about what's happening in local hospitals, they are still saying that things aren't as rosy as the government makes out.

"Waiting times are still too long, there aren't enough doctors and nurses and there are still complaints about cleanliness."

The BBC's Karen Allen
"It is a vast improvement on last year"
See also:

27 Jul 00 | NHS reform
Six months: A realistic wait?
27 Jul 00 | NHS reform
Blair unveils NHS blueprint
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