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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

Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes: "This is bad news for patients."
The Health Secretary Frank Dobson has challenged every health authority in England to meet strict new targets for reducing NHS waiting lists as figures reveal they have hit a record high.

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.

[ image: Fewer wait over a year, but waiting lists still rise]
Fewer wait over a year, but waiting lists still rise
The government has asked health authorities to cut the number of the number of people waiting by 170,000. Earlier this week, it announced an extra 65m to help the NHS meet the targets.

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.

Dobson 'embarrassed'

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:

  • No patients have waited more than 18 months for treatment and the number waiting over 12 months has fallen by more than 300 for the first time in two years

  • More than 18,000 patients have been treated between December and March in a bid to fulfill the Patient's Charter pledge

  • More than a fifth of patients on the waiting list have been given a date for their treatment.

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.

Health minister Baroness Jay: "We will meet our targets."
Simon Hughes, for the Liberal Democrats, called on the government to invest an extra 1bn in the NHS. "When Labour made its pre-election statement that the NHS is in crisis, they did not say that voting Labour would make the crisis worse," he said.

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.

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