Pioneering group takes the 13.27 to Lille for their National Health Service hip replacements and cataracts operations

The nine patients who will become the first to be treated abroad, courtesy of the NHS, must have felt like international celebrities.

Reporters and photographers besieged them as they were driven to Ashford station to catch the 13.27 Eurostar train to Lille. At the other end, the French press was equally eager to see the pioneers, who were taken by minibus to the city's La Louviere Hospital where they will be treated either for joint replacements or cataracts.

Barbara Sturgess, one of the nine who are all between 62 and 82 and have been on NHS waiting lists for at least seven months, is having her right knee replaced after she developed osteoarthritis.

"It's very debilitating," the 63-year old said. "I had my left knee done three years ago in England and this knee was playing up then. It should have been done at the same time but they gave me some pills and said they wanted to see how it got on. I would have liked to have had it done in Dover 12 months ago but I'm very happy to be going to France. The pain is terrible and I will be glad to be free of it."

The nine are the first of an estimated 200 patients who will be treated abroad in a pilot scheme to reduce NHS waiting lists. The Government has said it is willing to send patients to any hospital in Europe as long as they are willing to travel. The trip has been organised by East Kent Health Authority and the first patients will be followed by a second group next Friday. The plan is to dispatch a set of patients every week until the test scheme finishes at the end of March.

Peter Huntley, chief executive of the Channel Primary Care Group, said: "We have made arrangements to make sure each patient's stay is as comfortable as possible. Everything will be explained to patients in English; English newspapers and cable TV will be available and patients will be guaranteed a decent cup of English tea."

He refused to say exactly how much the bill for treatment would be but said the cost of treatment in France compared favourably with fees charged by hospitals in this country.

La Louviere, a private hospital, is the first to sign an agreement with the NHS to treat British patients. A spokesman for the Department of Health said negotiations were under way with hospitals in other parts of Europe.

Mr Huntley added: "The cost for each patient is being met by that individual's health authority. Central Government will be issuing guidelines to the NHS on commissioning treatment abroad. This will not be taking money out of the NHS.''

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat spokesman on health, said refusal to disclose the cost was "outrageous".

Ms Sturgess said: "I've been on the waiting list for 12 months. I rang up before Christmas to see how much longer I would have to wait and I was told the waiting list has gone up to 15 months but they asked me if I would consider treatment abroad. They said it would probably be Germany. They phoned a week later to confirm my interest and, within three weeks, I'm now travelling to the hospital."

One patient's husband told French TV: "This is a political coup for the French, we are having to come here because at home they are closing hospitals and reducing beds."

Another patient, John McCaul, 64, a retired postman from the Isle of Wight, said: "We will be going from here into a tunnel and into darkness and then there will be light. I am looking forward to the light at the end of the tunnel.''

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