Record rise in hospital waiting lists

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The Independent Online
Figures due out this week are expected to show a record 13 per cent increase in hospital waiting list figures, likely to be the biggest single increase since the National Health Service began.

The figures are likely to prompt a political row over calls for the Government to spend more money on the NHS.

Ministers are alarmed because the increase of 136,000 patients in the year ending in June will make the total of more than 1.18m people waiting for hospital operations the largest on record.

The numbers waiting for treatment for more than 18 months - in breach of the patients' charter - has also risen, and the total number on the waiting lists shows no signs of falling.

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, will heap the blame on the last Tory government for causing the crisis in the NHS, and he is ready to deny Tory claims that the Government is reneging on its election pledges. But he realises he will face demands for more money which he cannot meet.

Waiting lists were shrinking under the Tories a year ago, but they started to rise in the run-up to the election, following a harsh winter and a surge in emergencies.

Within two weeks of the election, it was announced that the figures for the first quarter to March had seen an increase of 5.4 per cent to a total 1,164,400 on the waiting list, with 155 patients waiting for more than 18 months. Some hospitals cancelled all routine operations, and many hospitals went into the red, in spite of a statutory obligation to break even, leading to longer queues.

To ease the strain, the Government quietly revised the guidance to the hospitals in July to let them break even over three years. But ministers are in no doubt that they are still facing a crisis.

Mr Dobson has been doing his best to prepare public opinion for the rise, by making it clear in the Commons and in speeches around the country that the number on the waiting list was set to continue rising.

His latest warning came only last week, when Labour celebrated its first 100 days in office. Mr Dobson said: "There is no question of betraying anybody." The manifesto was carefully worded to avoid a commitment to reduce waiting lists. Instead, it promised to "treat an extra 100,000 patients" and end waiting for cancer surgery, which it is fulfilling.

But at the height of the election campaign, Labour campaign posters and full-page advertisements in national newspapers carried Labour's five election pledges, including a promise that "NHS waiting lists will be shorter". The Government has five years to meet that pledge, but these figures have left some ministers wondering whether they can keep it, without more money for the NHS.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, produced a surprise increase of pounds 1.2bn in health spending for next year in his Budget on 2 July, but he has so far resisted demands for extra money for the current year. The clamour for money to be switched from other departments, such as defence, is also set to grow.

A group of new intake Labour MPs - including Phil Sawford (Kettering) Mike Wood (Batley and Spen) Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) and Christine McCarfety (Calder Valley) - have joined veteran rebels such as Tony Benn in calling for deep spending cuts in defence to pay for more public services in the Government's defence review.

Tony Blair ordered no fundamental cuts in defence capability at the start of the review, but the rebellious stand by new MPs underlines the difficulty facing George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, in persuading the party to accept the results in the Autumn.

Those on Labour's left who are behind the move say they are not attempting to turn back the clock to the big rows over unilateralism in the early 1980s. But they believe they will strike a chord with the party's newer members by calling for more money to be spent on hospital beds than tanks, jets and bombs.

It comes a week after Peter Mandelson announced that a Whitehall unit was being set up by Mr Blair to tackle the underclass. He was criticised by prominent figures, led by Roy Hattersley, Labour's former deputy leader, for failing to offer any redistribution of wealth to go with his announcement.