By Martin Hickman, Political Correspondent, PA News

The NHS could be "saved from collapse" by flying patients to Third World countries where health care is a fraction of the price, a Labour MP said tonight.

Former welfare reform minister Frank Field pointed out that operations such kidney transplants cost £500 in India compared to £8,490 in the UK.

Writing in The Sunday People, Mr Field urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to seriously consider his plans for "NHS International."

Mr Field told Mr Blair: "If you are going to save the NHS from collapse this coming winter, Tony, you will have to look beyond Britain.

"You need to offer the three million people waiting for treatment the chance of having their operations abroad.

"This would not be a compulsion, but an option. People will be free to stay in the queue and wait their turn."

Mr Field, who was asked to "think the unthinkable" on welfare reform, said the NHS needed radical surgery because of the time it took to train staff - six years for a doctor and three years for a nurse.

In the meantime India and China could take the strain, he suggested.

He said that the £5,000 cost in the UK of a heart bypass was 10 times more expensive than in India.

Similarly, hip replacements costing up to £6,500 in Britain cost £865 in India - with no waiting time.

"The costs are so different that NHS International could be quids in even if the patient took a relative over to accompany him and paid for their fares and hotel costs," Mr Field wrote.

The MP acknowledged some people would say it was "wicked" to exploit such developing countries, but he said China and India wanted to market their health services overseas.

In 10 years time the two Asian powers would be "the major players in this new emerging world market," he said.

The left-winger suggested Britain could help the countries by offering to pay for a free operation for a local person for each one it bought.