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Conflict over NHS waiting figures: Parties at odds over performance of hospitals

Conflicting figures on how well the National Health Service is performing were produced by the Government and the Opposition yesterday, with Labour saying that more than 1 million people were waiting for hospital treatment and the Secretary of State for Health claiming an increase in hospital 'activity' and falls in waiting times.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said the results of a telephone survey of regional and special health authorities in England showed that waiting lists had passed 1 million for the first time.

The figures, which are sent to the Department of Health but no longer published by the Government, showed 1,004,878 people waiting for treatment in April, an increase of 1.3 per cent over March.

The Labour survey showed waiting lists had increased in every region except North West Thames and Oxford and the special health authorities. Mr Blunkett said: 'These figures are a scandal. No amount of smooth talking from the Secretary of State can disguise the fact that waiting lists are at a record high.' He said the survey showed only half the picture as many people had to wait for more than a year before they appeared on the official waiting lists.

In contrast, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, announced provisional NHS management executive figures which showed that 407,000 more patients were treated in health service hospitals in the year to March, a rise of 5.6 per cent over the previous year. She said the number of patients treated as day cases had increased by 18 per cent, and that one in five of all acute patients treated in hospital returned home the same day.

The Government's figures also showed the number of people who had to wait between one and two years for treatment had fallen by 29 per cent over the year, to 56,000, which was less than 6 per cent of the total on waiting lists.

Since the Government began emphasising hospital activity as opposed to numbers on waiting lists, critics have argued that some patients were having to return for treatment because they were discharged too early from hospital and that the figures distorted the true picture of patients being treated successfully.

Labour's figures showed that waiting lists had increased by almost 200,000, or 21.2 per cent, since the NHS reforms were announced in 1988.

However, Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Minister for Health, played down the waiting lists: 'All emergencies and urgent cases - half of all patients - are dealt with immediately. Of the other half, 50 per cent are dealt with within five weeks and 75 per cent within three months. In the final analysis the number of people on a waiting list is not important, provided that they are treated within a reasonable time.'