The restructuring of the NHS hospital service, faster than predicted, will be given a further boost this week when Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, announces the fifth and final wave of invitations to apply for trust status.
Although the fourth wave is not yet completed, ministers are now confident that the transformation begun under Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister will have been completed within two years.
The new forecasts are expected to hasten a decision by Mrs Bottomley on whether to retain the regional health authorities in a slimmed-down and much less powerful form or abolish them completely.
Although Mrs Bottomley is expected to turn down a minority of the 121 'expressions of interest' in self-government during the fourth wave of invitations, ministers still expect that 95 per cent of hospitals will be run by trusts by the end of next year. They expect the rejected applications to be accepted during the fifth wave.
The new figures circulating in the department will help Mrs Bottomley to secure a warm reception at this year's party conference. But party activists will also see the speed with which they have taken place as reflecting credit on her predecessor, Kenneth Clarke. As the centrepiece of the health service reforms begun before John Major became Prime Minister, the creation of an 'internal market' in the NHS is dear to the heart of Thatcherite Tories.