A Government U-turn will see thousands of NHS patients sent abroad for treatment in an attempt to cut waiting lists, the Secretary of State for Health said yesterday.

Patients facing delays for operations will be entitled to care in other European Union states in one of the biggest changes to the provision of health services since the NHS was founded in 1948.

The announcement represents a climbdown for the Government, which has repeatedly refused requests from MPs to use EU hospitals to cut queues for operations such as hip replacements, cataract removal and heart surgery.

Yesterday Alan Milburn admitted that NHS health provision had "a huge amount of catching up to do" with hospitals on the Continent. He announced a change in policy to give patients a choice if they "wanted to be treated elsewhere in Europe".

He will tell local health authorities this week that they can spend public funds in future on treatment abroad.

"I think the overwhelming majority of British patients will continue to be treated in this country," he said. "But in future, primary care trusts will have the option of securing treatment for NHS patients in other European countries."

Mr Milburn was speaking after one of Britain's leading emergency doctors fuelled the outcry over the number of patients kept waiting on trolleys for treatment after being admitted to hospital casualty units. Dr John Heyworth, president of the British Association of Accident and Emergency Medicine, said keeping patients on trolleys had become the norm in many hospitals. "Casualty departments have become warehouses where patients end up waiting in corridors and all sorts of undignified and inappropriate clinical areas," he said.

Health organisations welcomed the policy shift on surgery abroad but warned that it should not replace extra investment in the NHS in Britain. "In the short-term we think this is a way to give patients the choice to be treated abroad," said a spokesman for the British Medical Association. "But in the long-term the solution must be to improve services in this country."

The change in the Government's position follows a ruling by the European Court of Justice that patients facing "undue delay" in their home countries could gain treatment elsewhere in the European Union. Mr Milburn is seeking legal advice about whether a Bill will have to be introduced before the scheme can be launched. If a change in the law is required it could take until next year for the first wave of patients to receive treatment in French, German or Italian hospitals. In France and Germany there are hardly any waiting lists. In Britain,42,000 patients endure delays for surgery of at least a year.

Frank Field, the former social security secretary, said he had been pushing the Government to use EU hospitals for months.

The Liberal Democrats said that the change in policy was "an admission by the Government of its failure to address the real problems of the health service during its first four years".The health spokesman, Evan Harris, said: "This policy will take much-needed NHS cash out of the country."