Thursday, May 21, 1998 Published at 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Health: Latest News
NHS waiting lists hit record high
Despite Labour election promises, waiting lists have risen
The number of people waiting for hospital treatment in England rose by 35,700 in the first three months of this year to 1.29m.
The highest rises recorded were in the North and South Thames regions which both saw increases of around 30,000 on last year's figures.
The rise is lower than that predicted by Liberal Democrats earlier this week. The government says it also shows that, for the first time, no patients are waiting longer than 18 months for treatment, in line with the Patient's Charter.
Health Secretary Frank Dobson said the figures on 18-month waiting were "only the beginning" of the process of reducing the lists. And he published new targets for next March.
He has, however, admitted he is embarrassed by the overall rise in waiting list numbers. During the election campaign last year, Labour pledged to cut waiting lists by 100,000. Since it came to power, they have instead risen by 137,000.
A breakdown of the new figures shows:
Since Labour came to power, the government has poured an extra £2bn into the NHS: £300m went to reducing winter pressures, the Treasury has found an extra £1.2bn for the NHS this year and Chancellor Gordon Brown allocated an additional £500m in his Spring budget.
It is from this £500m - £417m of which is allocated to England - that the extra £65m announced earlier this week, will come.
The Conservatives' health spokesman, John Maples, accused the government of "seriously letting people down".
"Where they promised to reduce waiting lists by 100,000, they have in fact soared by 2,700 a week," he said. And he added: "This has caused suffering across the country and severe disappointment in a government that is failing to deliver."
He said the government should copy the Conservatives' example of increasing health spending by 3.1% a year in real terms.
The Liberal Democrats are also claiming that blood bank shortages will have a knock-on effect on waiting lists. They claim to have received a leaked letter from a National Blood Service official to blood bank chiefs in London and the south-east.
They say it tells banks to prioritise non-emergency treatment for people with group O patients because of shortages.
'Obsession' with lists
The British Medical Association and the NHS Confederation have criticised the concentration on waiting list figures. They want the government to look at constructive ways of ensuring people in urgent need of treatment do not get passed over.
Stephen Thornton of the NHS Confederation said: "The intense focus on waiting lists risks skewing clinical priorities and draining resources from other areas of the NHS, like high quality cancer and mental health services, that people deeply care about."
The BMA said doctors should decide what an acceptable wait was for particular types of operation. Chairman James Johnson called for a "move away from the obsession with the number of people on waiting lists".
Health workers' union Unison demanded a "sustained increase" in NHS funding. It said this should be at least 3% above the rate of inflation.