Politics: Hospital waiting lists keep rising

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A rise in hospital waiting lists will be reported today. Health Secretary Frank Dobson will announce an action group to meet Labour's pledge to cut times, says Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent.

Teams of troubleshooters are to be appointed in the eight NHS regions in an attempt by Frank Dobson to get a grip on the waiting list figures which today will show a continued rise. Task forces will be sent into hospitals where the queues for operations such as hip replacements are the longest, to offer advice on how to reduce waiting times.

The Secretary of State for Health will also announce the creation of a national action group who will report to ministers. Members from the national group will act as leaders for each of the eight task forces.

The decision to appoint new teams underlines Government dismay at the continued rise in the waiting list figures. Mr Dobson blamed the Tory legacy in August when the numbers waiting for hospital treatment hit a record 1.1million, but his tone will change today to express hope that the NHS might have turned the corner.

He will announce that the latest quarterly figures show the rise is continuing but it is beginning to slow. The appointment of the troubleshooters is intended to accelerate the turn-around, but it also highlights the deep concern in the Government to meet the pledge to reduce waiting lists, one of Labour's five key election promises.

The total number of patients waiting for surgery rose by 3 per cent to an all-time high of 1,192,700 for the quarter to August. Today's announcement will show that the rise has slowed to around 2 per cent in the quarter from July to the end of September.

Mr Dobson yesterday compared the waiting lists to a supertanker. He told MPs they would take a long time to slow and turn-around.

The Government came under fire from Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on health, for failing to put more money into the NHS."They will try to manage the waiting lists to pretend they have not gone up as much as they have been. That is because of the summer," he said.

Mr Dobson was praised by Labour MPs for pumping an extra pounds 269m into the NHS from the defence budget to help hospitals avoid a crisis this winter, but ministers fear cold weather will see another sharp rise in waiting lists.

Such an increase could lead to renewed calls for rationing of care on the NHS, with some treatments being dropped from cover.