Milburn pledges to hunt down the killers that take the lives of millions of Britons

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Indy Lifestyle Online

THE DEATH of the photographer Ian Weir the day before he was to have a triple heart bypass was indicative of the anxious wait faced by millions of heart patients in Britain.

THE DEATH of the photographer Ian Weir the day before he was to have a triple heart bypass was indicative of the anxious wait faced by millions of heart patients in Britain.

Mr Weir had been waiting for surgery for seven months, but a surgeon refused to bring forward his appointment, apparently for fear of giving him preferential treatment. For Mr Weir's job on a local newspaper and his friendship with the new Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, meant his case was guaranteed attention.

Despite the MP intervening on his behalf, Mr Weir was forced to wait like everybody else, and like many others he died before he was treated.

Mr Milburn's aides denied yesterday that the death of his friend was behind the fundamental shift in health service policy under which the drive to cut fatalities from heart disease is one of three new priorities for the Government, equal in importance to the cutting of waiting-list numbers.

Improving Britain's poor record on deaths from heart disease, cancer and mental health is now to be at the top of the health agenda.

Officials were at pains yesterday to explain that the Department of Health was not replacing the pledge to cut waiting lists by 100,000, just adding to it, and that the results of the drive to cut waiting lists had not been readily apparent to those who were still being told it would be months before they could be treated.

Heart disease, cancer and mental health were chosen because together they account for most deaths and illnesses in Britain. The death rate from heart disease in August in England and Wales stood at 230 per 100,000 people aged 45 to 64 - more than twice the rate in France. Even a cut of 40 per cent in the UK heart-disease rate would leave the country with a death rate well above that in Germany, Canada, Australia and Italy.

The British Medical Association (BMA) remained sceptical yesterday about how the improvements would be made unless new money were found for more doctors and medical resources.

A spokeswoman said the association had protested for a long time that the emphasis on waiting-list numbers was distorting clinical priorities and that the Government should concentrate instead on reducing the time that people wait.

She said the BMA would reserve judgement on the new priorities until it saw full details of how they would be paid for.

A source close to Mr Milburn said yesterday that this week's "cardiac summit" would look at ways of bringing death rates down urgently. Mr Milburn and 12 senior cardiologists will discuss how beds could be freed up to allow surgeons to carry out more operations. They will also consider ways of increasing the number of cardiac consultants over the next five years, by opening more training centres and stepping up recruitment.

The meeting will be followed next week by a similar consultation with national cancer experts to devise strategies for meeting the Government's pledge that by the end of next year every suspected cancer sufferer will see a specialist within two weeks.

Mr Milburn's camp said money for the new priorities would come from the £21bn already allocated to health in the last comprehensive spending review. And they hope that when next year's spending review is completed, with a growing economy, more money can be found to fund the health service's new priorities.