Patients needing heart surgery will wait no longer than a year for treatment from March next year, Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, promised on Wednesday.

A £300m investment programme would provide more NHS heart operations, speed diagnosis of heart conditions and modernise the cardiac units at eight hospitals, he said.

Last year the NHS plan pledged to cut waiting times for heart surgery, which had been longer than 18 months in some areas, to a maximum of three months by 2008.

Mr Milburn said progress to reduce the queues was well ahead of target and, by next spring, no NHS patient would wait longer than 12 months before being admitted to a public or private hospital.

"Getting the waiting time for surgery down is essential to cutting deaths from heart disease. So we will use both NHS and private provision to reduce waiting times," he said.