Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 13:58 GMT
Tories launch blitz on waiting list 'lies'
Ann Widdecombe said Labour were 'fiddling the figures'
Ministers are expected to announce next week that NHS waiting lists have fallen to levels inherited at the general election in 1997.
However, Shadow Health Secretary Ann Widdecombe has pre-empted the announcement by accusing the government of "fiddling the figures on a massive scale".
Miss Widdecombe said ministers were trying to cover up a rise in the number of people waiting for hospital treatment.
She told a press conference in London that waiting lists were still rising, thanks to series of "fiddles" encouraged by Health Secretary Frank Dobson.
Miss Widdecombe said that - in the case of Kent and Canterbury Hospitals Trust - there was even a "waiting list for the waiting list to get onto the waiting list" for a consultant ophthalmologist.
Figures produced by the Tories, based on Department of Health statistics, show the combined number of people waiting for a first appointment with a consultant and for treatment was 1,618,000 in March this year compared to 1,405,000 in March 1997.
The Tories have claimed that the number of people waiting for treatment or to see a specialist is about 470,000 higher than Labour claims.
Miss Widdecombe said: "What this amounts to is an increase in suffering for patients in our health service and a fiddling of the figures on a massive scale."
She told the press conference that the Tories would now ditch headline waiting list figures as a key indicator of success in the NHS.
They would be replaced by waiting time targets for treatment groups, enabling patients to be treated according to clinical need.
"The Tories made these allegations in November and they were comprehensively exposed then and nobody believed a word of it.
"They have got nothing new to say - they are simply thrashing about."
He said waiting lists had fallen by 153,000 since April 1998 to 1,159,000 last month, the lowest figure for almost two years and close to the inherited figures of 1,158,000.
Nobody was waiting more than 18 months for treatment and the number of people waiting longer than a year had also fallen, he said.
The government has pledged to reduce waiting lists by 100,000 on the level inherited at the last election during its first term in office.