New setback for Government over hospital waiting times

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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Government's drive to allay public anxiety over the National Health Service was undermined last night by fresh evidence that people have been waiting longer for treatment since Labour came to power.

The Government's drive to allay public anxiety over the National Health Service was undermined last night by fresh evidence that people have been waiting longer for treatment since Labour came to power.

Yesterday Alan Milburn, the new Secretary of State for Health, shifted the Government's priorities away from cutting waiting lists by announcing an extra £50m to tackle heart disease.

But last night's government figures, disclosed to MPs, reveal that the queue of NHS patients waiting more than three months for their first appointment with a consultant has almost doubled since the 1997 general election, despite Labour's repeated claims that waiting lists are going down. The number has risen from 247,510 in March 1997 to 456,033 this year, and the average waiting time between a GP's referral and a consultant's appointment has risen from six to almost seven weeks.

Mr Milburn, who will face Commons questions as Secretary of State for Health for the first time today, will be challenged on the new figures, which are included in a government memorandum to the Labour-dominated Commons Select Committee on Health.

Last night the British Medical Association said it was now becoming commonplace for new patients to have to wait until next April to see a consultant.

The number of people on the so-called "waiting list for the waiting list" poses a problem for Mr Milburn.

Although the Government is on course to deliver its 1997 election pledge to reduce in-patient waiting lists by 100,000, the growing delays for out-patient treatment will embarrass ministers.

Frank Dobson, who stood down as Secretary of State for Health last week, promised in March to take action to reverse the trend, but the figures have stubbornly continued to rise. The total number of outpatients waiting more than 13 weeks to see a consultant now exceeds 485,000.

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