Hospital waiting lists 'rise to 1.1m'

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Hospital waiting lists have reached an all-time high with more than 1.1 million people waiting for operations, Labour's health spokesman said yesterday.

Releasing results of a survey by the party, Chris Smith said a Labour government would require trusts and authorities to set out plans to reduce bureaucracy by the end of June. From 1 October patients would be treated on the basis of need and those with fundholding GPs would no longer have any advantage.

Labour claims the number of people who have been waiting over a year for treatment has increased by 6,000 in one month. Between March and December 1996 the number increased fivefold, the party says. Between December 1996 and January 1997, eight out of 10 health authorities reported an increase in the number of patients waiting.

Mr Smith said Labour would end waiting for cancer surgery and speed up diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

It would also cut management costs in National Health Service trusts and health authorities. The targets, to be agreed within two months of the election, would be monitored by a "bureaucracy buster" who would be sent into trusts or authorities which were failing to meet them. The Secretary of State for Health had recently told a woman that she should register with a fundholder to get a heart bypass done more quickly, Mr Smith said.

And an eye surgeon had told him that while patients registered with fundholders could get cataract surgery in six to eight weeks, those who were not had to wait up to a year.

Under a Labour government, Mr Smith said, the "two-tier system" would be ended, and from 1 October, all patients would be on the same waiting lists. Within three years, fundholding would be phased out, except in particular cases where local doctors agreed that devolved budgets were justified.

Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said he had been "amazed" by recent increases in NHS administration costs, and highlighted comments by the former prime minister, Sir Edward Heath, in a television interview yesterday. He had said on Sky television that health was a more important election issue on the doorsteps than Europe.

However, Alan Duncan, a member of the Conservative campaign team, said Labour's plans for the NHS amounted to nothing more than "yogic flying".

He said: "Since the NHS reforms, waiting times have been cut in half to four months. Mr Smith's five-point plan outlined today consists of nothing more than scare stories backed up by lies and hearsay."

In a separate appearance yesterday the Labour leader, Tony Blair, said the most important lesson he had learnt from the current government was the need for party unity.

"The single biggest lesson now is not to end up in a situation, as the Conservatives are, where civil war is breaking out 11 days out of an election. And I believe at least the Labour Party will provide a united government for this country."