Ministers find NHS crisis to be worse than they feared

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The Independent Online
A rise of 5.4 per cent in the number of patients waiting for treatment on the National Health Service will be disclosed today in a series of government announcements in which ministers will blame the Tories for the increase, saying that the figures lay them open to the charge that they concealed the true extent of the crisis in the NHS from the voters in the general election.

Ministers are angry that although there was never any doubt that an in- coming Labour government would face a crisis in the NHS, it is worse than was expected.

One ministerial source said last night that the waiting-list figures were "appalling and on the rise"; they show that in England the total number of patients waiting to be admitted to NHS hospitals rose by 59,400 to 1,164,400 in the last quarter.

Health ministers, who have now seen the books, have also discovered that many hospitals are in the red. They privately warn the NHS is facing a "black hole" of debt. Hospitals in London are said to be more than pounds 100m in deficit.

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, will make an early start on fulfilling Labour's election pledges by announcing a cash injection for the treatment of breast cancer. It will come from some of the savings of pounds 100m from bureaucracy promised during Labour's election campaign.

He will also announce that the savings to be ploughed back into healthcare will be substantially higher than Labour promised, because of the freeze he announced on Tuesday on the creation of any further fundholding family- doctor practices.

About pounds 10m is expected to be targeted at breast-cancer treatment; Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, is due to visit a cancer ward at King's Hospital, north London, to underline his government's election commitment to cutting waiting times for treatment.

The number of patients waiting for more than a year increased by 9,200 to 31,300; and 155 patients have been waiting longer than the 18-month guarantee under the Patient's Charter.

Under the charter, patients were promised admission by the last government within 18 months of being placed on the waiting list. Tory ministers promised action in December last year, when it was disclosed that 123 patients were still on the waiting list after more than 18 months. But the figure rose to 155 patients at the end of March.

One ministerial source said: "It is an absolute disgrace. We were horrified when we learned what the true picture was. Some hospitals are deeply in the red, and it is getting worse."

The crisis facing the hospitals with deficits was raised in the Commons last night by Harry Cohen, a Labour backbencher, who complained that his local Whipps Cross Hospital in London was pounds 4m in the red.

The extent of the deficits also will alarm the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who has ordered the Department of Health, with other ministries, to carry out an urgent review of spending to see if savings can be made. The Secretary of State for Health is almost certain to seek more money from the Treasury to overcome the crisis.

The waiting-list figures supplied by the government statistical office show that there have been increases in waiting since December 1996 in all eight NHS regions: 930 up in Northern and Yorkshire; 11,1320 in Trent; 5,150 in Anglia and Oxford; 8,250 in North Thames; 14,560 in South Thames; 7,560 in South and West; 6,190 in the West Midlands; and 5,600 in the North West.

Most of those waiting more than 18 months were in the North West; 58 were in North Thames; 25 were in Anglia and Oxford; seven were in South Thames; and one was in the West Midlands.

Ulster's fresh start

Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, criss- crossed the province yesterday visiting marching flashpoints and meeting Orangemen and Catholic groups, as a fresh start was made on the path towards a new IRA ceasefire.

Ulster talks, page 11