NHS waiting lists have fallen below the one-million mark for the first time in a decade, the Department of Health said yesterday.
The number of people waiting more than 12 months has also fallen to just 73, another 10-year low.
But the Government has failed to hit its target on speedy access to GPs, one of the main pledges in its NHS plan.
Claims that the "war on waiting" is finally being won are being undermined by continued doubts about manipulation of lists and the way hospitals are hitting the targets.
Nigel Crisp, chief executive of the NHS, launched his annual report with the news that, at the end of March, 992,000 people were waiting for in-patient treatment in England, the lowest since December 1992. Only 73 patients have been waiting for more than 12 months, most of them because of problems at the East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, which is now being investigated over list mismanagement.
Waiting lists for outpatient appointments have also fallen, while there have been significant increases in the number of operations, accident and emergency attendances and prescriptions issued.
Mr Crisp said: "Last year we said we were turning the corner with the NHS; now we are beginning to see a trend, with activity going up while waiting times go down. These reductions are not just a one-off. The NHS is starting to change, and I believe we are on target to deliver the NHS plan."
But one target – to guarantee access to a GP within 48 hours for 90 per cent of patients – has not been hit. And a main plank of the NHS reforms, that 75 per cent of operations should be performed as day-case surgery, also looks in doubt, having risen from 67.6 to only 68 per cent in the past year.
While the target to reduce A&E waiting times to four hours was achieved, doctors and hospitals have said the target was only met by drafting in temporary staff and cancelling operations in the week that waits were assessed.
Liam Fox, shadow Health Secretary, said: "If Nigel Crisp thinks that it is great news that almost a million people are waiting to be treated in the NHS, then he clearly has absolutely no idea what patients, often in pain, are feeling. It is a damning indictment of this Government that they use their own analysis of the NHS to try to generate good news and disguise their own abject failings."
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