Ministers pledge end to 18-month NHS waiting lists

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MINISTERS yesterday sought to head off protests over a rise in NHS waiting lists, to a record high of 1.29 million, by pledging that in future no patients would be left waiting for more than 18 months for any operation.

"Eighteen month waiting has been abolished," said a senior ministerial source. "There are now no patients waiting over 18 months. This is not a one-off blip; it will be permanent."

Critics of the Government's focus on waiting lists may regard that promise as a rod for Frank Dobson's back. The Health Secretary knows his job is on the line over the rise in waiting lists.

But Mr Dobson remained confident yesterday that he would meet his promise to get the figures down to the level Labour inherited from the Tories within the next 12 months, even though there is now a bigger hill to climb.

The Health Secretary has to cut 135,000 off the waiting lists by next April, before starting on Labour's election commitment to cut them by a further 100,000 by the end of Parliament. The Independent reported this week that he has been assured by Tony Blair of pounds 6bn in July for a programme of investment in the NHS to the next election.

The figures, for the first quarter of 1998, show an extra 35,700 people were waiting for treatment. The rise was about 8,000 less than predicted by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrat spokesman Simon Hughes warned that NHS waiting lists would mean "many more dark clouds" for patients.

Mr Dobson mounted a counter-attack, accusing the Liberal Democrats of being split over whether targeting waiting lists was the right strategy for the health service.

Some doctors have argued that the Government was wrong to focus on waiting lists for elective surgery, because it leads to pressure to get the easiest cases off the waiting lists, regardless of the clinical priority.

Mr Dobson for the first time set targets for every health region in England to be met by April next year.

John Maples MP, Tory health spokesman, said the figures showed Labour was "seriously letting people down".

"Where they promised to reduce waiting lists by 100,000 they have soared by 2,700 a week," he said.