Pre-Budget statement: NHS to get pounds 250m tonic for winter

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The Independent Online
THE SPECTRE of hospitals crammed with patients waiting on trolleys this winter extracted an extra dose of cash from the Chancellor to tide the NHS through the most difficult months of the year.

Gordon Brown announced an extra pounds 250m to help hospitals deal with winter pressures which could threaten the Government's achievement of its waiting- list target.

The cash comes on top of the pounds 500m allocated to reduce waiting lists and the pounds 1.2bn to meet pay and price rises and growing demand from an ageing population. Last winter, which was exceptionally mild, the Government allocated pounds 300m to deal with winter pressures, but there was no waiting- list fund in that year.

The NHS Confederation, representing trusts and health authorities, warned last month that hospitals would face serious pressures without extra funding this winter. The three-year pounds 21bn investment in the National Health Service announced in the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review last July does not come on stream until April 1999.

A survey by the confederation found that three-quarters of trusts expected delays in accident and emergency departments and two-thirds said waiting times would rise.

The confederation said that emergency admissions were rising at 2 to 4 per cent a year but the routine work had to be kept up if waiting lists were to come down.

Yesterday, Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, said the extra money should be used to develop permanent arrangements between health and social services, which were started last year, to avoid the annual winter crises.

"The NHS today is better prepared and better able to cope with the winter than ever before," he said.

Stephen Thornton, director of the NHS Confederation, said that the extra cash reflected ministerial determination to hit the waiting-list target - and a gradually dawning recognition of the cost of doing so.

"Ministers have begun to realise that they can't hit the buttons on waiting lists and give people a quality experience in an emergency. This money does show that this government is committed to carrying out its manifesto intentions," he said.

However, he warned that the extra money was a one-off, and if spent on permanent arrangements would reduce the growth money available for new developments next year. "We are anxious the unions don't look at that and say `Ah, more money for pay awards.' This is non-recurring."

The Royal College of Nursing said the money would not solve the crisis in nurse recruitment.

Christine Hancock, its general secretary, said: "It's good news that the winter crisis is being recognised but what's really needed is extra nurses to cope with the extra patients over winter. This pounds 250m will do nothing to sort out the crisis in nurse shortages which is affecting patient care across the country."

Labour pledged to cut waiting lists by 100,000 - from the level they stood at when the party took office - by the time of the next election. Instead, the number of patients on waiting lists rose by 181,399 up to the end of last April. With a fall of 69,700 in the four months to the end of August, that leaves the Government with another 211,699 to go by March 2002 - almost 60,000 patients a year.