The divide between Labour and the Tories over health widened yesterday when they clashed bitterly in the Commons over John Reid's five-year plan for the NHS.
Although both parties are promising to extend choice for patients, the Health Secretary said the difference was "access based on need [under Labour] not ability to pay [under the Tories], guaranteed waiting times, not unlimited waits; queue cutting, not queue jumping".
Criticising Tory plans to meet up to 50 per cent of the cost when people opt for private treatment, he said: "It should be medical need and not the money in your pocket which dictates your priority in health care." He reassured Labour MPs that the Government would "not waver from the founding principle of the NHS".
Mr Reid pledged that the maximum waiting time for an operation would be cut to 18 weeks by 2008, when the average total wait would be nine or 10 weeks. By the same year, every patient in England referred by a GP would be able to choose to be treated at any hospital meeting NHS standards and costs. The private sector would provide up to 15 per cent of operations paid for by the NHS.
He promised 3,000 new community matrons to provide "personalised care" for 17.5 million people suffering chronic and long-term conditions such as diabetes, asthma and arthritis.
Accusing the Tories of "hypocrisy," Mr Reid said they believed that waiting lists could be abolished "with the wave of a magic wand".
He demanded an apology by Michael Howard for his blunder during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, when he raised the case of a constituent forced to wait 20 months for breast cancer treatment. The wait was actually 20 weeks.
Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, said "Labour's pig-headed belief" was that setting targets was the same as getting things done.
The Tory spokesman said that the Department of Health had confirmed to him that the average wait for treatment was rising.