Hospitals losing battle to cut lists

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Rising emergency hospital admissions were blamed yesterday for a sharp jump in the NHS waiting list which shows that 1.2 million people are now queueing for operations.

The 13 per cent annual increase in the waiting list - for non-emergency treatment - was described as "grim news for patients" by the British Medical Association. Official figures published yesterday, which were leaked to The Independent at the weekend, show an extra 136,000 patients were waiting for treatment at the end of June, compared with a year ago.

Patients waiting more than a year for treatment have increased more than fourfold over the period from 10,400 to 47,000. The figures also reveal that 388 patients had been waiting longer than the 18-month Patient's Charter guarantee, compared with nine a year earlier.

The pressure on hospitals is the result of a combination of factors including the unexplained rise in emergency admissions, estimated at 13 per cent nationally over four years, which was singled out yesterday by John Maples, Tory health spokesman. "The evidence is that emergency admissions are continuing to grow, making the task of cutting waiting lists even more difficult," he said. "Unfortunately, the Government is exacerbating the problem by increasing costs and reducing efficiency."

Emergencies tend to be more expensive to treat than routine cases and many NHS trusts have been forced to cut their contracts for routine cases this year, which means waiting lists grow, to cope with the anticipated growth in emergency work. Trusts are also carrying deficits over from last year, the toughest financially in a decade, adding to their problems.

The BMA and opposition parties said there was no hope of cutting the waiting list without extra cash for the NHS above the extra pounds 1bn already pledged for hospitals in England next year. Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the BMA, said: "In the current situation where many health authorities and trusts are in financial deficit, everyone agrees that we have no option but to provide for the normal increase in emergency cases this winter. But the inevitable consequence is that waiting lists and waiting times will rise to record levels. The only way to prevent this is an immediate injection of additional resources this winter."

The Government blamed the worsening situation on the legacy it had inherited from the Conservatives but insisted it would stick to its manifesto commitment to "cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients". However, it was unclear yesterday whether ministers would regard treatment of an extra 100,000 patients, without a concomitant cut in waiting lists (as more patients join them), as fulfilment of this pledge.

Alan Milburn, the health minister, said: "Record NHS waiting lists and longer waiting times are the price patients have paid for the squandering of precious NHS resources on running the Tories internal market. The new Government has already put in place a series of measures to tackle the mess we have inherited." He admitted, however, that waiting lists were "likely to go on rising for some time".

Health authorities are to get details of their budget increases for next year in October, two months earlier than normal, to help them plan ahead. They have been told to put urgent and emergency patients first and to avoid breaches of the Patient's Charter.