Defence hit for NHS winter cash injection

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The Independent Online
Defence spending is to be cut to help provide a winter lifeline of up to pounds 250m for hospitals facing a crisis shortage of beds. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the drastic measures.

Almost pounds 170m is to be switched from defence to health as part of an emergency package of action to keep down hospital waiting lists this winter, Alistair Darling, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said yesterday.

Further cash injections are expected from the Department of Trade and Industry and a higher-than-expected European Union budget rebate, bringing the country's hard-pressed hospitals a bonus of as much as pounds 250m. Mr Darling said that the Conservative government had provided an extra pounds 25m to help the hospitals overcome last winter's bed shortage.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his July Budget that a further pounds 1.2 billion would be made available for the NHS next year, on top of Conservative spending plans, but there have been mounting warnings that no help was being provided to meet this winter's expected crisis.

Given Labour's key election pledge of "shorter waiting lists", the Treasury was left with no alternative but to find additional money to avert a repeat of an annual crisis which leaves patients kept waiting for treatment on trolleys in hospital corridors.

James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants' committee, told BBC radio's World this Weekend: "I earnestly hope the extra money can be released to the NHS now, so that some wards that have been mothballed can be reopened and additional staff recruited.

"For the last 10 years, any empty bed has been seen as inefficient and ruthlessly cut out as part of the pressure for efficiency savings. But to be able to admit emergencies, you must have some empty beds."

Christine Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, also welcomed the imminent cash bail-out, saying: "This is a significantly useful contribution. Of course we would have liked more but with good targeting and co-ordination this should really help this winter."

But there was strong criticism from the Tories. Peter Lilley, shadow Chancellor, protested: "A U-turn like this should have been made in a statement to Parliament, where it could be subjected to proper scrutiny." He also questioned whether an over-stretched Ministry of Defence could afford its pounds 170m contribution. "This doesn't hang together," he said. "It doesn't add up, and that's why it's been slipped out in this way."

Mr Darling - the Government's spending axeman - said that with a defence budget of pounds 20bn, there was scope for sacrifice.