Tony Blair was accused yesterday of failing to explain why the introduction of a new treatment for blindness had been delayed, resulting in up to 2,800 people losing their sight.
Michael Howard, the Tory leader, pressed the Prime Minister on the issue, citing figures showing there were 50 centres across the country able to provide the new treatment, called photodynamic therapy (PDT), to "many more patients".
Mr Howard said: "The truth is patients need this treatment to stop them going blind; the doctors want to treat them to stop them going blind; why won't you intervene to sort out this mess?"
But Mr Blair disputed the figures, provided by the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB). He said: "The advice we have is that there is not the available capacity to deal with people at the moment".
Health chiefs were given nine months, rather than the usual three, to introduce PDT treatment for the "wet" form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) after a decision in September by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, the drugs watchdog, to approve its use. AMD is the most common cause of blindness in the elderly and results from the overgrowth of capillaries in the retina. It affects 250,000 people in Britain but only 5,000 to 7,500 a year can benefit from PDT. The treatment, which uses a laser and a chemical to block capillaries, slows but doesn't cure the condition, and may have to be repeated. At a cost of £900 a time, the bill for treating 2,800 patients would be £2.5m.
Mr Blair said the additional six months allowed for the NHS to provide the treatment was necessary to build up capacity, and was not related to cost. He said: "This was not a matter of the Government refusing to act when the capacity was there; we have to build the capacity to treat the patients properly."
But Steve Winyard, RNIB's head of public policy, said: "The Government are dragging their feet and have absolutely no excuse in still not allowing PDT treatment to be made available on the NHS. There is no shortage of doctors who could provide treatment. On the contrary, we know of 50 centres around the country that can provide people with treatment who otherwise may go blind. The situation ... is a sham."
The RNIB said that, although many centres were willing and able to provide PDT, most primary care trusts had been unwilling to provide funding. The Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, it said, had the equipment and the staff but not the money.
Mr Blair told MPs yesterday: "We are aware of the RNIB making these claims but they are disputed, I am afraid, by those that actually have to implement this policy". A spokesman for the health department said that every district had been ordered to provide the treatment by July.