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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Too many NHS targets, says Blair
Tony Blair
Hospitals are judged on nearly 40 targets
Prime Minister Tony Blair has admitted the government has relied too heavily on NHS targets.

Speaking during a debate in London with health professionals, Mr Blair said in retrospect there had been too many.

He said the government had looked to reduce the burden on the NHS, citing a relaxation in the A&E target.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have both criticised targets, saying they force NHS staff to compromise patient care.

The prime minister was asked by King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson, who was hosting the debate on Tuesday, whether he would stick with targets in spite of criticism from health professionals about them distorting priorities.

The targets are well meant, but they have unintended consequences
James Johnson, of the British Medical Association

Mr Blair said: "I think in retrospect there were to many, but that is why we have reduced them."

The prime minister cited the flexibility shown over accident and emergency targets.

It was initially proposed that trusts should ensure 100% of patients were seen within four hours, but that was reduced to 98% after complaints that it would mean decisions would be taken for non-clinical reasons.

But Mr Blair said he did not think there was an appetite among NHS staff or patients to get rid of them altogether.

"I think people want the target regime to be more streamlined and more rational.

'Blunt instrument'

"They are always going to be a blunt instrument, but sometimes it is necessary, particularly when that amount of money is going in, to push forward.

"I think we wouldnt have got big reductions in waiting lists and waiting times without them."

Targets have been used by Labour to help push through improvements in the health service from reducing waiting lists to increasing cancer survival rates.

Hospital targets - there are nearly 40 on which they are judged on - have come in for the most criticism.

James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: "The targets are well meant, but they have unintended consequences."

He said the A&E target had meant that when patients were approaching the four-hour deadline, doctors had been forced into pushing them anywhere within the hospital to meet the target.

He also said he feared the government's 2008 18-week target for an operation would mean non-urgent cases being seen ahead of urgent cases just so the target could be met.

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "After eight years Mr Blair admitted there are too many targets.

"Targets distort clinical priorities and undermine hard working NHS staff. That's why Conservatives will get rid of them altogether. Mr Blair claimed Labour has reduced targets but this is all talk."

He said Cabinet Office figures showed there were 206 targets for frontline NHS staff.

Liberal Democrats health spokesman Paul Burstow said: "Whenever Labour ministers are attacked on targets they claim that targets do no harm and improve patient care.

"Yet simultaneously they claim credit for reducing the number of targets, which they said were doing no harm."



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