The first patients to have NHS surgery abroad spoke glowingly of their treatment yesterday as they convalesced at a private French clinic.

All nine of the operations on the Britons were carried out successfully and the first patient was expected to return home within the next few days.

Barbara Sturgess, 63, who had knee replacement surgery at La Louviere clinic in Lille, northern France, said other patients should have no fears about being treated abroad if the NHS could not cope. "There is really nothing to worry about. You can come over here in complete confidence," she said.

Mrs Sturgess, a grandmother from Dover who had been on the waiting list for 13 months, said: "I am just so happy. I was in a lot of pain before the surgery. I feel full of happiness now I can get my life back.

"I am looking forward to going home and leading a normal life. I don't want to be able to run a marathon. I just want to walk down the road."

Gill Hancock, 67, a retired accounts clerk who had cataract surgery, said she felt "very fortunate to be one of the chosen few for an operation in France". She had also been waiting for more than a year for surgery.

The patients have been staying in private rooms with their own television and fridge. Yesterday's lunch included fresh salmon with mayonnaise, yoghurt and pear tart.

The patients, aged between 62 and 82, travelled to France by Eurostar on Friday. Four had cataract surgery and five had joints replaced. The cataract patients are expected to be well enough to go home in a few days, but the others need bed rest and will spend the next two weeks rehabilitating.

The nine patients, all from East Kent, are the first of an estimated 200 to be treated abroad in a pilot scheme to try to reduce waiting lists.

Another group will go out on Friday and the aim is to send patients every week until the scheme finishes in March.

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