Milburn in NHS strategy U-turn

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THE GOVERNMENT will announce new targets today for treating heart disease as it downgrades the priority given to its controversial pledge to cut hospital waiting lists.

THE GOVERNMENT will announce new targets today for treating heart disease as it downgrades the priority given to its controversial pledge to cut hospital waiting lists.

In a fundamental change of emphasis, Alan Milburn, who was appointed the Secretary of State for Health last week, has ordered his department to make the two "big killers" of heart disease and cancer its main focus.

Mr Milburn, who will hold talks today with 12 leading cardiac experts and doctors, will promise more heart operations, the recruitment of more cardiac consultants and a blueprint for the prevention, treatment and care of heart problems. Next week he will launch a review of cancer services aimed at guaranteeing that no sufferers should wait more than two weeks to see a consultant from next year.

Appointments within a fortnight have already been promised for patients with suspected breast cancer. The move suggests ministers will now aim to cut the waiting time for life-saving treatment rather than the length of the total list.

Yesterday Mr Milburn denied Labour would abandon its promise to cut waiting lists by 100,000, one of the muchheralded "five pledges" on which Tony Blair fought the 1997 general election.The Government is on course to deliver it because the number of people on lists has fallen by 70,000.

However, Mr Milburn's change of gear will be seen as a tacit admission that the NHS has devoted too much energy and cash into getting patients off waiting lists.

Doctors have complained that this has distorted NHS priorities, with people receiving treatment for relatively minor ailments while seriously ill patients are kept waiting for complex operations.

Some ministers believe privately that the 1997 pledge was a mistake, and that Tony Blair hopes to use last week's reshuffle, in which Mr Milburn succeeded Frank Dobson, to get the Government quietly off its own hook.

"A lot of people recognise with hindsight that it was foolish," one minister said. "We should have listened to the real doctors instead of the spin-doctors."

However, Mr Blair's allies said he was adamant that Labour was right to make the pledge. "He is wedded to it," one aide said. "He believes it crystallised our commitment to the NHS and that it has been a spur to greater efficiency since the election."

Mr Milburn said yesterday: "We will meet the waiting list pledge by the election, but that's just a start. We need to modernise every aspect of NHS treatment, starting with the big killers of heart disease, cancer and mental health." Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, a Health minister, insisted that the Government could cut waiting lists and give greater priority to tackling cancer and heart disease. He said the waiting list pledge was "not an irrelevant goal to those people who are waiting".

But the British Medical Association warned that the health service could not keep up the pressure on waiting lists and divert extra resources to tackle cancer and heart disease. "I think it will be very difficult - we can only do so much with the current resources," said Dr Peter Hawker, chairman of the BMA's consultants' committee.

Tories will question Mr Milburn when MPs return to the Commons from their three-month break tomorrow. Liam Fox, the Tory spokesman on health, said the Government should abandon its pledge, give up its "incompetent political meddling" and leave decisions on clinical priorities to doctors.

"Mr Milburn is stuck with the Government's pledge on waiting lists which Tony Blair is too arrogant to admit he got wrong and misled people for two years, so he is being left to try to do two different things within one budget."

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