The pledge, which will be difficult to achieve, will mean the biggest- ever increase in the number of operations, and will require hospitals to carry out surgery seven days a week. The drive could also trigger a politically embarrassing boom for the private sector in areas where the health service cannot cope.
Throwing down the gauntlet to the NHS and putting his political future on the line, Mr Dobson said pounds 320m of the extra pounds 500m for the NHS announced in Tuesday's budget would be devoted to cutting waiting lists in England which at the last count in December topped 1.26 million, 100,000 higher than at the election, and rising.
"By April next year, I expect hospital waiting lists in England to be shorter than the 1.16 million record level we inherited from the previous government. That's the target," he said.
Delivering this target would go half way towards meeting one of Labour's five key election pledges - to cut waiting lists by 100,000 below the level at which they stood at the time of the election in May last year. It would be achieved by a mixture of carrot and stick, Mr Dobson said. "There will be rewards for [health authorities and trusts] who meet their targets and sanctions for those who do not."
The NHS Confederation said the extra money was welcome but solved only part of the problem. The other part was finding the spare capacity in an already overstretched NHS.
Stephen Thornton, chief executive, said: "I would imagine a number of health authorities will find the best way to get the lists down will be to commission work in the private sector ... We have got to be careful to get value for money because in the mad rush for operations prices could rise."
Mr Thornton said that, viewed strictly in terms of health gain, spending to cut waiting lists was probably not the best use to which the money could be put. "But the government has come in with a political imperative to cut waiting lists. That is the political reality and we are not complaining about it."
The British Medical Association said a focus on waiting lists could mean that patients with minor conditions were treated sooner than those with more urgent ones.
James Johnson, chairman of the BMA's consultants committee, said: "We do not want to see people waiting unacceptably long times in pain and distress. But we want a broader, more sophisticated look at the problem than simply taking patients off the end of the queue."Reuse content