Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, has agreed in principle to a guarantee that urgent conditions will be seen within a month or six weeks. She has asked the medical Royal Colleges to draw up definitions of what constitutes an urgent case.
But Professor Leslie Turnberg, chairman of the Conference of Medical Royal Colleges, warned yesterday that more than 50 per cent of non-emergency patients will fall into the urgent category, and that 'is going to create major financial problems . . . More money will be needed'.
Senior doctors suspect that Mrs Bottomley may not have understood the implications of what she has in principle agreed to.
Professor Turnberg said problems were arising because emergency admissions - which make up about half of all admissions - have to be treated immediately and have been growing. But in the new NHS health authorities then have to honour Patient Charter guarantees that no one will wait more than two years and will be treated within a month if their operation is cancelled twice. That meant less-urgent cases were being treated ahead of more urgent ones to honour the guarantees.
Hospitals were then completing their contracts with health authorities for waiting list treatment three to six months before the end of the financial year so that only GP fund-holders' patients' could then get waiting list treatment - with the net result that urgent conditions were having to wait.