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The BBC's John Egan
"An entirely new relationship with hospital consutltants"
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Steven Thornton, NHS Confederation head
"A risk worth fighting for"
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Health Secretary Alan Milburn:
A war on waiting
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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
'War on waiting lists' declared
Operation under way
The plan would mean more efficient surgery
Radical plans to transform the NHS may include an attempt to cut the maximum waiting time for operations to just three months.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn told BBC Radio Four's World at One programme that he wanted a "war on waiting" extended throughout the NHS.

He said that proposals from the NHS Confederation - suggesting the three month limit - were being considered "very, very carefully".

It is reported that Tony Blair wants to unveil the proposal as the "big idea" of the government's national plan for the NHS, which is due to be announced in July.

It claimed that the government would aim to reach the three-month limit before the end of its second term, if re-elected.

This is one we are looking at very very carefully

Health Secretary Alan Milburn
The measure would bring the UK more into line with the rest of the EU in terms of how long people have to wait.

At the moment some people in some parts of the country are waiting up to 18 months for operations.

The NHS Confederation, which represents health service managers, claims that more efficient working within hospitals, coupled with extra money for staff recruitment and training could cut this dramatically.

Another idea involves creating centres which carry out only planned or non-urgent surgery, meaning that operations are not cancelled at short notice when emergency cases arrive.

'Under consideration'

Mr Milburn told the BBC: "We are talking about fundamental reform of the way the NHS works.

"What we needed to do was to take the war on waiting into every part of the NHS.

"It's simply not on that the best we can currently guarantee for patients is 18 months."

He added: "This is one idea we will look at very, very carefully."

The report comes as ministers conduct a major public consultation exercise, with 12m leaflets being distributed widely, asking people what three changes they would like to see in the health service.

Carrying out the three-month promise might require more money, extra to the 35% increase over the next four years already allocated.

But Nigel Edwards, policy director for the NHS Confederation, said: "The current increase could be enough. It depends what other calls on the money people think are important.

"You are talking about a service in which you can always do more."

Potential problems

The Guardian reports that he Treasury is concerned at the plan, fearing ever-increasing demands every year as ministers try to fulfil what would be a vital election pledge.

The Conservatives accused ministers of excessive "meddling" in the NHS.

Shadow health minister Dr Liam Fox said: "I'm amazed at some of these arguments.

"The problems in the NHS are not caused by the staff in the NHS."

Opposition would also have to be overcome from within the NHS as it would require new methods of working and the breaking down of demarcations within the medical profession.

One suggestion is to establish surgery units specialising in routine operations with simpler procedures carried out by new sub-consultant grades of surgeon, something which the British Medical Association has opposed.

Another stumbling block could be the consultants' contract, which is being renegotiated.

However, Nigel Edwards made it plain that the consultants might have to be compensated well for the loss of lucrative private work.

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See also:

31 May 00 | Health
Public quizzed over NHS
22 Mar 00 | Health
NHS reform: Blair takes charge
15 Mar 00 | Health
Blair challenges GPs to change
03 Mar 00 | Health
Blair's health pledge 'flawed'
16 Jan 00 | Health
Blair admits NHS is underfunded
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