Waiting times for NHS hospital treatment will fall to an average of nine weeks by 2008 with no patient waiting more than 18 weeks from GP referral to operation, the Health Secretary, John Reid, pledged yesterday.

Launching the much trailed five-year plan for the NHS which amounts to Labour's manifesto for the next election, Mr Reid promised increased choice for patients, extra support for people with chronic conditions and a stronger emphasis on prevention.

By 2008, all patients will be offered treatment at any hospital in England, NHS or private, that can meet NHS standards and provide care at the NHS price, he said. Money will follow the patient providing an incentive for hospitals to compete for business, in a manner similar to the Tories' internal market.

But the NHS tariff - to be rolled out over the next four years - will provide a list of fixed, non-negotiable prices for each treatment, leaving hospitals to compete on quality and speed of access rather than cost.

Private hospitals will provide up to 15 per cent of operations and an increasing number of diagnostic procedures, the document says.

Most of the targets in the NHS plan in 2000 have been swept away but a handful remain which are focused on waiting times, reductions in cancer and heart disease and the implementation of electronic patient records.

Mr Reid said no one would lose out under Labour's plans. "Our choice is for everyone, paid for by the NHS backed by increases in resources."

The 80-page "NHS Improvement Plan" says that in four years' time waiting times for treatment will have ceased to be the main concern for patients and the public. Instead the questions of how and where they are to be treated and the quality of care will assume increased importance.

To achieve this, the document envisages an expansion of capacity - investment in the NHS is set to grow to £90.2bn by 2007-08, averaging 7.3 per cent real terms growth over the five-year period - and a change in the way the NHS works.

In addition to treating more people in hospital, more will also be cared for at home or in the community. Thousands of new community matrons will provide "personalised care" for 17.5 million people suffering chronic and long-term medical conditions such as diabetes.

Chronic illness imposes huge demands on the health service with one in ten of all hospital patients accounting for 55 per cent of hospital stays. By improving the care of people closer to home through specialist nurses and GPs, the expectation is that this will lead to reduced emergency admissions.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, accused the Government of a "pig-headed" obsession with targets. "Labour has failed to listen to the real concerns of NHS staff," he said. "They are fed up with targets."

Paul Burstow, the health spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said the plan was just another five years of targets and tick boxes "tying the hands of doctors and nurses".

Karen Jennings, head of health at Unison, the largest health union, said the Government should be building up capacity in the NHS rather than developing the private sector.

"The Government must know that any expansion of the private sector will be at the expense of the NHS," she said.

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