Operations cancelled as health authority overspends budget: Cash shortage will hit three London teaching hospitals for the next six months. Stephen Ward reports

ONE London health authority has already overspent its budget by so much that it is having to cancel most non-emergency operations at three teaching hospitals for the next six months.

The Middlesex, University College and St Bartholomew's hospitals have all been instructed to halt routine treatment for thousands of patients because in the financial year so far they have been 'over-performing'.

Last year many health authorities ran out of money in the final months of the financial year and had to postpone treatments under the new 'free market' approach to funding the National Health Service. But the Government is likely to find it more embarrassing for an authority to start running out of money so soon.

Last night a Department of Health spokesman stressed that emergency operations would continue, and that the difficulties were only temporary. The move will add to the difficulties of the hospitals involved, which are threatened by the Government's plans to reduce the concentration of hospitals in central London. It is understood the average 'over-performance' in the first three months of the financial year was 20 per cent at the Middlesex and University College hospitals, and 11 per cent at St Bartholomew's.

Letters were sent yesterday from the University College London shadow trust, which runs University College and the Middlesex, telling Camden and Islington patients with an admission date for orthopaedic treatment that their operations have been postponed. Ear, nose and throat, plastic surgery, general surgery, ophthalmology and neurology are also affected.

The hospitals will still treat patients from Camden and Islington who attend their casualty departments, and under its contracts, the health authority still has to pay for the treatment. The casualty units are expected to continue to treat more patients than were budgeted for. With no way to reduce spending on casualty, the health authority had no choice but to cut non-emergency treatment.

Alyson McRae, manager of Camden and Islington Health Authority, said: 'We want to treat patients throughout the year for urgent and emergency work so a hospital has to manage its flow of patients. That has to be kept under control.'