Patients with suspected life threatening illnesses should have access to private hospitals and mobile scanners to reduce their "long, agonising waits" for diagnosis, the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, said yesterday.
Attacking "hidden" waiting lists for tests, Mr Kennedy said it was wrong that people with "a serious, perhaps life-threatening, condition" should have to wait up to a year for a diagnosis.
Setting out his party's policy on health care, Mr Kennedy said the Liberal Democrats would make reducing waits for testing "a very high priority indeed". He said he had "no ideological objections" to using private clinics and even mobile testing units to help cut the waits. "It may be that using private hospitals or mobile units to provide NHS care in such areas is both feasible and cost-effective," he said. "We should not turn our backs on any spare diagnostic capacity if it makes sense and it represents good value for the taxpayer."
An investigation by Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, found that people were waiting six months or more for routine MRI scans to detect brain tumours, cancers and serious heart conditions. Some 8 per cent of NHS trusts have waiting times of over a year, he said. A quarter of NHS MRI scanners are so old that they are past their "best before" date.
Mr Kennedy said it was scandalous that "after eight years in office this government doesn't know the extent of these hidden waiting lists". Waiting times for scans and tests should be published so "that people can't be trapped on these hidden lists".
"Put yourself in the place of one of those patients. Your GP has decided you may have a serious, perhaps life-threatening condition. But if you can't afford to go private, six months or a year later you are still waiting to find out what is wrong - which means no treatment has started," he said.
Mr Kennedy said cash from the party's review of government spending would be earmarked to reduce "diagnostic waiting lists" but said there were "question marks over the scale of what is required to turn this around" because of the "absence of reliable data".
He called for a greater use of screening, including a health "MoT" for individuals. Charges for dental and eye checks would be abolished.
John Reid, the Health Secretary, said that the Liberal Democrats had not caught up with existing policy. He said that ministers had pledged to reduce waiting times from the time of seeing a doctor to an operation to 18 weeks. He attacked Liberal Democrat plans to abolish waiting list targets.
The Government has increased the number of MRI scanners in the NHS to 219 compared with 110 in 1997, and has commissioned MRI scans from the private sector to cut queues.