Although the Government's drive to cut the longest delays for surgery appears to be paying off, the number of patients waiting up to a year for operations has jumped in all 14 English health regions. In the last quarter of 1992 alone, when many hospitals began slowing activity to keep within contracted levels, the numbers waiting up to one year rose by 5.3 per cent on average. However, the rise was 12.5 per cent in the North East Thames health region.
Altogether there were 976,700 people on NHS waiting lists in December, compared with 915,300 in the previous March. The total waiting up to a year stood at 904,300, compared with 834,500 in the fortnight preceding the election. Claims from Virginia Bott omley, Secretary of State for Health, that the increase in the number on lists was due to the availability of more services in the NHS were dismissed by David Blunkett, her Labour shadow.
The Government has earmarked special funds to meet its Patient's Charter commitment to ensure that no patient is on a waiting list for more than two years. Although there were still nearly 600 in this category last December, health ministers remain confident that they can fulfil their pledge to bring the ceiling down to 18 months from this April for all those awaiting hip or knee replacement, or cataract operations.
Last year, the Department of Health agreed to look into complaints from family doctors' leaders of worsening delays between GP referral of patients to hospital and the first outpatient appointment. Information on these waits is excluded from official waiting list figures and is not collected centrally.
However, regional health authorities have been told to set local targets for first outpatient appointments with hospitals and monitor performance.
Commenting on the increase in the numbers waiting up to a year, Mrs Bottomley said she sympathised with those forced to wait for treatment. 'But it is right that our emphasis should be on tackling long waiting times. This policy is working very well.
'The increase in the number of under-one-year waiters reflects the fact that more patients are now being referred for treatment as the NHS works more effectively and is able to offer many more services,' she said.
However, Mr Blunkett said the decrease in the relatively small number of people facing the longest waits had been achieved at the expense of thousands with more urgent conditions.
'Health priorities have gone out of the window in a desperate effort to get down the longest waits.'
The inclusion of the NHS in the first four departments to undergo spending reviews on Monday meant waiting lists were likely to continue rising, he said.
Mr Blunkett challenged Mrs Bottomley to respond to British Medical Association claims that the NHS was suffering its worse funding crisis for 30 years.Reuse content