Hospital waiting lists rise 9% to record high

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The Independent Online
HOSPITAL waiting lists in England have hit an all-time high, up 9 per cent or almost 88,000 in the past year. They stand 140,000 higher than at the time of the general election.

The latest rise - 3.3 per cent between September and December to 1,064,302 - shows the sharpest percentage rise in those waiting more than a year, suggesting waiting times as well as the numbers on the list may be getting worse.

Just to compound the Government's embarrassment, North East Thames also recorded eight patients waiting more than two years for treatment - a target meant to have been achieved almost two years ago.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said it was 'scandalous' that the Government had presided over such a huge increase, showing its market reforms were not working.

Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister for Health, coupled release of the figures with the announcement that pounds 12m saved from central NHS budgets was to be spent in the remaining six weeks of the financial year to cut the lists back.

The money, he said, 'will help nearly 40,000 people receive their treatment sooner than would otherwise have been the case. This is splendid news, bringing the amount of money allocated to reducing waiting times this year to pounds 51m'. The Government was committed to reducing waiting times, he said, and 'as a result patients can expect shorter waiting times than ever before'.

However, compared with a year ago, when numbers waiting over a year were falling in most regions, half the 14 regions recorded more patients waiting over a year last December than in December 1992. The total was 2,200 up at 74,079. Of those treated from the waiting list, half are admitted within five weeks, nearly three-quarters within three months and 98 per cent within a year, Dr Mawhinney said.

David Blunkett described the extra waiting list cash as 'a panic response to this huge leap in the waiting list figures'.

He said 34,000 had been added to the waiting list in just three months. 'A coherent response is needed to tackle the problem, not merely the sudden discovery of an extra pounds 12m with barely two months left in the financial year'.

NE Thames, which saw a 19 per cent rise in the numbers it has waiting more than a year, said it had ended up with eight patients waiting more than two years because of unexpected emergency cancer cases which had resulted in operations having to be postponed. All the patients had been given dates for treatment, a spokesman said.

Of the 14 NHS regions, only Wessex and South Western recorded a drop in the total numbers waiting. Mersey, North Western, South Western, Oxford, Wessex, East Anglia and Trent all cut the numbers waiting more than a year. Only Wessex, however, reduced the numbers waiting under a year.