Bottomley accused of NHS climb-down

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PATIENTS who need an urgent treatment or investigation must receive it and hospitals should 'phase' their care to avoid the end-of-year freeze on some treatments as they struggle to balance their budgets, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, said yesterday.

Mrs Bottomley was responding to surveys from the royal medical colleges and British Medical Association which show that many people are being denied care because of financial restraints.

But she failed to explain how hospitals which had run out of money should provide care without storing up problems for the coming financial year. The Labour Party said that her statement represented a 'major climb-down' on the operation of the internal market in the NHS.

In a letter to Paddy Ross, chairman of the consultants' committee, Mrs Bottomley wrote: 'Whatever the particular local circumstances, there can be no question of patients requiring urgent investigation or treatment having it delayed because they come forward towards the end of the year.'

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said: 'For her to suggest that hospitals must end their restrictions on patient activity without acting to suspend the NHS internal market, or make additional money available is quite simply dishonest.'

The Department of Health said there was 'enough money in the system to care for the relatively few patients' who needed urgent treatment or investigation.

The BMA survey published yesterday shows that more than half of hospital consultants in acute services - such as surgery, medicine and obstetrics and gynaecology - are experiencing financial restrictions on patient care.

Almost one-third of respondents said the contracts with purchasers had already been completed, and no other money was forthcoming.

A Labour hospital-watch survey also published yesterday found that 16 hospital trusts were being forced to reduce activity or cut staff and 22 district health authorities were in a similar position.