Doctors warn of worst crisis in history for NHS

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The health service faced possibly the worst crisis in its history, doctors warned yesterday. This winter may see an emergency-only service as hospitals and health authorities run out of money six months into the financial year.

Doctors, managers and many trust executives agree that an immediate cash injection is vital. In hospitals throughout the country routine surgery is being delayed or cancelled, waiting- lists are growing, operating-theatres and intensive-care units are being moth-balled, and expensive hi-tech treatments are being withheld, according to the British Medical Association.

Sandy Macara, the chairman of the BMA, which yesterday published a survey detailing problems faced by purchasers and providers, said that chronic under-funding of the NHS could no longer be hidden by the "smokescreen" of the internal market.

"The fact is unless [patients] are clearly an emergency they may have to wait in pain; they may have to wait in distress, and they may have to wait for diagnosis," Dr Macara said.

The BMA survey follows a report by the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts (Nahat), an organisation normally supportive of government policy, which admits the NHS is "over-heating" and needs an extra pounds 200m to cover its deficit this year and real growth increase of 3 per cent next year.

Earlier this week Hillingdon Hospital, in west London, said it would not admit patients over 75 from half its catchment area and had cancelled all non-emergency surgery because it had run out of beds.

James Johnson, the chairman of the BMA's consultants committee, said: "Wards, theatres and even intensive-care beds are lying idle. Staff are being dissipated and lost.

"Waiting-lists are now rising because the absolute priority is to admit emergencies. We're running a two-tier service where the only patients being treated are ones whose GPs and purchasers have some money left."

Senior Department of Health officials had been touring the country and there was "no doubt whatsoever that the department privately knows exactly what the situation is". But, Mr Johnson said, there was nothing to suggest that action would be taken, despite the political sensitivity of an NHS crisis in the run-up to a general election.

An estimated "several hundred million" was needed this year plus a relaxation of the 3-per-cent year-on-year efficiency savings expected from hospitals.

Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, has acknowledged that waiting-lists would have to rise this winter as hospitals coped with the annual surge in demand.

The Treasury is also being leaned on to put up more money for the NHS following the Prime Minister's promise of commitment to a publicly funded service, free at the point of access, at the Tory party conference last week.

A spokesman for the Department of Health dismissed claims of under-funding in the NHS and said that in real terms the budget had been increased by 74 per cent since 1979. "There is more money than ever before and more patients being treated. The NHS is a victim of its own success."