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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 15:50 GMT
NHS 'reaches waiting list target'
Generic picture of surgery
The waiting list fell below 800,000 for the first time last year
The government says it has hit its target for operation waiting times even though a small number of people are still waiting longer than six months.

Ministers had pledged that by December no NHS patient in England would wait longer than six months for surgery.

But figures at the end of the year showed 48 patients were still waiting longer than the recommended time.

Despite this, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said they had met the pledge, and that progress had been "dramatic".

Of the 48 people waiting more than six months, 36 were English residents waiting for treatment in Welsh hospitals.

When the brakes go on NHS spending, as the government is planning, there is a real danger that waiting times will start to go up again
Steve Webb, Lib Dem

Ms Hewitt said: "When we published the NHS Plan, many said that our waiting time targets were not achievable.

"Now that maximum wait is down to six months - with the average wait for treatment being eight weeks.

"The challenge now is to meet our commitment to deliver a maximum wait of 18 weeks from GP to treatment.

"This will end the hidden waiting lists that patients often encounter and is the final step in consigning waiting lists to NHS history."

Lowest ever

Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "The government is spending large amounts of money on buying in operations from the private sector in order to hit its waiting list targets, but this level of spending is not sustainable.

"When the brakes go on NHS spending, as the government is planning, there is a real danger that waiting times will start to go up again."

The Department of Health said that the NHS waiting list for England had decreased by almost 400,000 since March 1997.

In October last year the waiting list fell below 800,000 for the first time since records began - it currently stands at 784,300.

Other figures released on Friday also showed that the NHS had met its target for a maximum 13-week outpatient wait by the end of last year.


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