Election '97 : Blair pledges pounds 10m for breast cancer

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Tony Blair yesterday committed pounds 10m to an improved service for the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

The Labour leader told an election press conference on the National Health Service that the party planned to divert savings from cuts in red tape and bureaucracy into patient care, and the first pounds 100m saved would help to treat an extra 100,000 patients.

Of that extra money, he said, pounds 10m would be invested in the breast-cancer programme. Mr Blair said that 300,000 women a year were currently being referred to breast clinics with suspected problems; 30,000 were diagnosed as having breast cancer, and 15,000 women died from the disease each year.

But he added: "The variation in standards of care and treatment are not acceptable. Many clinics cannot provide an appointment for an urgent case within a week. Only a third of breast clinics are able to give women the results of tests the same day. We will create a nationwide network of one-stop teams for breast-cancer diagnosis, so that all tests can be done on the same day. We will end the agony of waiting, and equip each team to provide specialist information and support."

Health spokeswoman Tessa Jowell said: "It is a massive shock for any woman to suspect she has breast cancer. It is vital that she sees a specialist as quickly as possible because we know this often makes all the difference.

"Of 47 breast clinics spot-checked last week by a GP on behalf of the Labour Party, only nine said that they could guarantee to see an urgent case of suspected breast cancer within a week. Whilst all but five clinics could see an urgent case within two weeks, every extra day that a woman waits is a day too long."

Labour's overall message on the health service was that when the general election is held on 1 May, the voters would be offered a choice between the maintenance of the NHS - or its demise under the Conservatives.

Mr Blair said: "The NHS under the Conservatives will simply not be there when you need it most."

Chris Smith, the party's health spokesman, said: "A fifth Tory term will make hospitals and GP practices profit centres, not health centres. Labour will never allow the NHS we created to be betrayed, distorted and commercialised like this. The debit and credit card could soon become the ticket past hospital reception, just as the chequebook is now the passport to the dentist."

Last night, in a Cardiff campaign speech, Paddy Ashdown attacked both the Tories and Labour over their plans for the NHS, saying that while Labour warned that there were just 14 days left to save it, the spending plans of both major parties would bring the service to its knees for the next three years.

Attacking the level of bureaucracy generated by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrat leader said: "I sometimes think that if Florence Nightingale had been starting out today, she wouldn't be the Lady with the Lamp, she'd be the Lady with the Calculator."

But he warned: "Don't let anyone kid you that savings from bureaucracy alone - vital as they are - will solve the financial crisis in the health service."