NHS patients will be able to choose within three years the hospital in which they want their operations to take place, it was announced yesterday.

John Reid, the Health Secretary, unveiled plans enabling all patients to select a venue from a list of up to five hospitals when a GP refers them for treatment.

He also outlined his intentions to grant patients greater freedom of choice by allowing them to choose who they would like to be their GP or midwife.

Mr Reid was issuing guidance to the NHS on how to implement new Patient Choice initiatives, which are based on the theory that there should be no discrepancy in the treatment received by private and NHS patients.

Unveiling his plans at the New Health Network in London, Mr Reid said: "Wherever possible we will empower patients by giving them genuine individual choices - about where, when, how and by whom they are treated."

As many as 6,000 patients have already taken part in pilot schemes that are currently in place enabling them to choose an alternative hospital to reduce waiting time.

These include heart surgery patients who have been waiting for longer than six months and people who are waiting for cataract operations in London.

The Government has already pledged that by summer next year, all NHS patients waiting more than six months for surgery will be offered the option of faster treatment in at least one alternative hospital.

Mr Reid condemned what he called a "two-tier health service" that had been in place for 60 years, in which those who could pay were able to jump waiting lists at the expense of NHS patients.