Health: pounds 250m winter crisis package for hospitals

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The Independent Online
NEW MEASURES to avoid a winter crisis in the NHS, including closer co-operation with the social services to prevent the "blocking" of hospital beds, were announced by the Health Secretary yesterday.

Frank Dobson said a better prepared NHS and a pounds 250m funding boost would assist staff to deal with emergencies and "enable patients to get back to their own beds as soon as that can be done safely".

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Dobson also announced that, for the first time,free flu vaccinations would be available for people over 75.

England will receive pounds 159m, with an extra pounds 50m allocated to deal with any particular local difficulties. The remainder of the funding will go to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Building on last year's "brilliant success", Mr Dobson called for an effective partnership between the NHS, local social services and the voluntary sector throughout Britain.

But Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Health Secretary, dismissed the announcement as "too little, too late" and complained the Government was making less available than the pounds 300m injected into the NHS last winter. "Have you made an assessment of the number of extra nurses that will be necessary and can you say where they will come from?" she said.

Outlining the proposals, Mr Dobson said: "Unless the weather is exceptionally harsh or there is a major flu epidemic, the NHS can face this winter with confidence." He said the extra cash would go on long-term schemes to improve the speed and quality of treatment.

"It will not be used to bail out poor performance," he said.

Mr Dobson confirmed hospital waiting lists fell by 29,000 in September and they had now fallen by 99,000 since their peak in April. He said yesterday's figures showed no one was waiting more than 18 months for treatment. There had been a rise of 67,000 in the number of out-patients treated. "But there is no time for complacency. That's how we will keep our promise to bring waiting lists below the level we inherited," Mr Dobson said.

As part of NHS modernisation, the Government was introducing a 24-hour "nurse-led helpline" and would be investing pounds 1bn in computer systems.

Mr Dobson said the pounds 159m would be divided between regional health authorities in Northern and Yorkshire, Trent, Anglia and Oxford, North Thames, South Thames, South and West, West Midlands and the North West.

Miss Widdecombe challenged Mr Dobson to confirm the waiting list statistics were accurate. "The waiting lists are a million light years from reality. Evidence is pouring in from all over the country that patients are being removed from monthly returns without them having received the treatment to which they are entitled, are being forced to wait longer to get on the list in the first place and being put on hidden lists which do not appear on official returns," she said.