Howard uses woman's wait for surgery to goad Blair over NHS

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The plight of a 69-year-old grandmother who had a high-risk operation cancelled seven times by her local hospital ignited a political row yesterday over the state of the NHS.

The plight of a 69-year-old grandmother who had a high-risk operation cancelled seven times by her local hospital ignited a political row yesterday over the state of the NHS.

Michael Howard used the ordeal of Margaret Dixon, who was repeatedly forced to say goodbye to her family because of the danger of dying during shoulder surgery, to taunt Tony Blair over the 66,000 operations that were cancelled last year.

Mr Blair reacted with anger during Prime Minister's Questions, accusing the Tories of planning to subsidise private treatment only for those who could afford to pay.

Mrs Dixon, of Penketh, Cheshire, was prepared for surgery five times in eight days at Warrington General Hospital in November, only to be told at the last minute each time that her operation had been cancelled because there was no bed available in a high-dependency unit (HDU).

She was given a new date in January, but was informed by telephone that the operation had been cancelled two hours before she was to leave home. In the final case, she was taken to hospital but was told her surgery had been cancelled when she arrived.

She was contacted by hospital officials yesterday after the row erupted and offered fresh dates for her operation. A spokeswoman for Warrington General Hospital said Mrs Dixon had been "put on the list for the week commencing March 21 and could be seen any day that week. However, she could be seen earlier."

Mrs Dixon, a former secretary, who suffers from kidney, heart and lung problems, said she had only a 30 per cent chance of surviving her operation. "There are only a few high-dependency beds at Warrington and there have been more needy cases than mine," she said. "The first setback was as a result of an accident locally where a man needed a bed. I didn't mind that. Then there was still not a bed free. It has gone on like that. I believe underfunding is the root cause. They have needed these beds for a long time. They say there are going to be more high-dependency beds but that is not going to do me any good."

Mrs Dixon said she had to say farewell to her family several times in case she did not survive surgery. She said: "It was a very emotional time. I can't go out and I have to get people to do things for me. I have pain which cannot be controlled with painkillers all the time because of my kidneys."

Mr Howard challenged Mr Blair: "Can you explain how after eight years of your government, all the money they've spent on the NHS and all the promises they've made, this can happen in Britain today?"

The Prime Minister criticised him for portraying Mrs Dixon's plight as the norm.

He told MPs: "If it is as described, it is completely unacceptable. But I don't know the details of it and, frankly at the moment, probably neither do you. What I think is quite wrong, is to take a case, which if it is true is of course unacceptable, and try to make what I believe is an exception into a rule for the health service. The fact is, the vast majority of people in our NHS - and remember there are a million treated every 36 hours - are treated extremely well."

A Labour source said Warrington hospital was due to double its total of 14 high-dependency beds by April and an orthopaedic treatment centre would open in nearby Runcorn in the summer. The number of cancelled operations in the NHS had fallen by 17.7 per cent in three years and made up 1.2 per cent of surgery, he said.

The hospital said it "very much regretted" the delays and pledged to reschedule the surgery "in the very near future". It added: "It is very unfortunate that, on the occasions this patient has been in hospital, there has been unforeseen demand on the HDU."