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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 13:16 GMT 14:16 UK
Minister's hurry over waiting lists
A consulting room
Consulting a doctor can take years
Nick Assinder

Cutting NHS waiting lists was one of Tony Blair's famous five pre-1997 election pledges.

In a novel piece of electioneering, he said voters would be able to judge his government's record on whether it had met those specific promises.

Health Minister John Hutton
Health Minister John Hutton defended the waiting list initiative
And former health secretary Frank Dobson was given the task of ensuring that hospital waiting lists were slashed by 100,000. But he failed.

Thanks partly to a winter health crisis, waiting lists actually started to go up.

At the same time the opposition parties were claiming that waiting times, rather than waiting lists, were the best test of how patients were being treated.

And, as the lists did eventually start to fall, there were persistent claims that clinical priorities were being distorted as doctors came under intense pressure to meet the government's targets.

The implication was that the welfare of patients was being put second to political imperatives.

There is no doubt that huge pressure was put onto the NHS to meet the government's promise.

Crucial promise

By the time of the last election, two of the five pledges were clearly not going to be met - so the need to meet the waiting list promise became even more crucial.

And, eventually, the lists did reduce and the government was able to claim it had met, or even bettered, its pledge.

But now, in a devastating report, the powerful National Audit Office has backed up all the criticisms.

In one of the hardest-hitting reports delivered to a government, it said clinical priorities were regularly distorted to meet the government's targets.

Doctors and opposition parties have seized on the report to insist it vindicates their claims.

Lives at risk

There have even been suggestions, fiercely denied, that the policy may have put lives at risk.

Ministers have rejected much of the criticism, claiming their policy has had a beneficial effect on the time patients have had to wait for operations.

But the government has now switched its emphasis towards waiting times and is setting the NHS fresh targets.

All this has come against a background of low morale in the NHS and the row over Tony Blair's plans to introduce more private cash into the public services.

And, no matter how vigorously ministers defend their previous policy, it will add to the feeling that the public services are being treated as a political football.

See also:

26 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Ministers savaged over waiting lists
26 Jul 01 | Health
Ministers blamed for NHS failings
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