NHS failing to treat more patients despite extra cash

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Hopes of saving the NHS look bleaker than ever today, with new figures showing there has been almost no rise in the number of patients treated despite the investment of billions of pounds over the past four years.

Hopes of saving the NHS look bleaker than ever today, with new figures showing there has been almost no rise in the number of patients treated despite the investment of billions of pounds over the past four years.

Since 1997, when Labour came into office, the NHS budget has risen by 30 per cent in real terms but the number of routine patients treated ­ counted as "hospital spells" ­ has remained stubbornly fixed at between 1.2 and 1.4 million per quarter in England.

Labour promised at the last election to cut the maximum waiting time for in-patient treatment to six months by 2005, in line with the NHS plan published in July 2000, but experts say that at the present rate of progress there is no hope of meeting that target.

The number waiting more than six months rose from 245,905 in March to 267,160 in June, more than one in four of the total on the waiting list. Experts estimate that to remove that number from the waiting list, hospital spells should be rising by at least 5 per cent a year.

That means that by the end of 2005, the NHS should be doing more than 500,000 extra operations each quarter ­ almost a 40 per cent increase in activity. Over the past four years, the most it has achieved is an increase of slightly more than 200,000 operations per quarter (in June-September 2000) and that rate has now slipped back. The figures do not include emergency patients because they do not affect waiting lists but even here the indications are that the trend is downwards. In London there were fewer emergency admissions last year than in 1999-2000.

Liam Fox, shadow Health Secretary, said: "There is no way the Government is going to achieve these targets. They are at best wishful thinking and at worst wilful deception. Everyone wanted the NHS Plan to succeed when it was published last summer but we never thought it was achievable and was merely serving to raise patients' expectations only to have them cruelly dashed again."

Evan Harris, health spokes-man for the Liberal Democrats, said: "The Government isn't going to be able to deliver because of their own past under-investment and the fact morale is so low it is impossible to increase the staff. All the Government's actions ­ unnecessary reform, unproved privatisation and demoralising hospital league tables ­ should be seen as their attempt to shift the blame for their failure."

Health authorities and NHS Trusts were circulated last month with a questionnaire asking them where the money had gone and a report was prepared for ministers. A host of reasons was suggested for how the money has been spent ­ including on pay and price rises, reducing deficits accumulated over years and to fund government initiatives in areas such as cancer and heart disease. But Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, is understood to have been dissatisfied with the report and told officials to "think again".

In response to the crisis, he announced plans to double the sum spent in the private sector to £40m to buy 100,000 operations next year. A spokesman for the Department of Health said yesterday: "There is no quick fix. We are building extra capacity, opening more beds, recruiting more staff and reforming the way people are treated. But this will take time."

John Appleby, director of the health systems programme at the Kings Fund, a health policy think-tank, said: "The figures show the scale of what has to be done."

Tony Blair, who took personal charge of the strategy to save the NHS 18 months ago, declared that spending would rise to the average of the European Union to deliver a modern and dependable service. In the past two years an extra £8.4bn has gone into the service, a 16 per cent rise in real terms. But ministers are becoming concerned the cash has disappeared into a black hole.

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