Health: Money targeted at hospitals with worst waiting lists

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The Independent Online
Three Thames hospitals with the longest delays in treatment will be the first to be targeted under a Government drive to cut waiting lists. Jeremy Laurance says that as more patients join the queues Labour's pledge to reduce them grows more remote.

Hospital waiting lists rose to a record 1,207,500 in England at the end of September, and they are likely to get worse before they get better, Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, said yesterday.

Using a favourite metaphor, he compared them to a supertanker that had been set in motion by the Tories and would take time to stop and turn round. "We inherited the highest waiting lists ever in the history of the NHS. Our commitment to cut them will be delivered. It will take time, hard work and patience but we will get there."

A sign of the Government's growing anxiety as it sees one of its key manifesto pledges receding - to cut NHS waiting lists by 100,000 - came with yesterday's announcement of a "waiting-list buster" who will oversee efforts to bring hospitals with the worst records into line.

Stephen Day, regional director of the NHS in the West Midlands, is to chair a waiting-list action team backed by eight regional task forces. Mr Dobson said Mr Day had been selected for his success in cutting waiting lists in his own region but it emerged that it had taken pounds 30m to do it. The team has been given pounds 5m to pilot ways of cutting the lists nationally but further cash will have to come from health authorities' own budgets.

Mr Dobson confirmed that the manifesto pledge to cut 100,000 from the waiting lists applied to the total at the time of the election in May. He said the lists had risen by 50,000 since, leaving the Government facing a new target of a 150,000 cut in the numbers to realise its pledge.

A start would be made by clearing the 818 patients who have waited over 18 months, in breach of the Patient's Charter standards, by the end of next March, Mr Dobson said.

"It is simply unacceptable that 800 people have waited over 18 months for treatment. No one should wait more than 18 months for treatment and by the end of the winter no one will," he said.

The number of people waiting more than 18 months more than doubled in the three months to September and three London hospitals account for more than half of them. Mr Dobson named them as King's Healthcare NHS Trust in south London, Mount Vernon and Watford NHS trust in Middlesex and Hertfordshire and Hammersmith NHS trust in west London. He said the health authorities covering the three trusts had already received a total of pounds 9.4m. "They have had targeted financial help. Now they will get targeted practical help."

More gloom came from the NHS Confederation yesterday which said a survey showed more than half of health authorities expected to end the year in debt, despite the extra pounds 300m cash injection announced last month.

The British Medical Association said it was futile to assume waiting lists could be reduced "when NHS trusts have already been squeezed dry and most of them will enter the next financial year in debt". But Mr Dobson countered that three NHS regions had no patients waiting more than 18 months - Northern and Yorkshire, Trent and South and West - and that they had received the same funds as the rest.