Record number waiting for NHS treatment: Figures show strain on Patient's Charter

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THE NUMBER of people waiting for hospital treatment in England hit a record high yesterday amid signs that waiting times for treatment are also lengthening.

Figures from the Department of Health show that 1,030,789 people were on the list at the end of September, a 1.3 per cent rise on June. The numbers waiting rose in all but three of the 14 NHS regions, and the figures suggest the strain of honouring the Patient's Charter commitments is meaning longer waits for those who do not benefit from the guarantees it offers.

Under the charter, no one has to wait more than two years for admission, and hip and knee replacements and cataracts have to be undertaken within 18 months.

The latest figures show the two-year target is holding. But the number of patients waiting more than a year and up to two years rose by almost 8 per cent, while the numbers waiting up to a year also rose, although by only 0.8 per cent.

It is the second quarter in succession that waiting lists have risen after the relatively lavish funding that the NHS enjoyed for the general election year.

Yesterday's 8 per cent rise in numbers waiting more than a year followed a 15 per cent rise in the previous three months.

Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister for Health, pointed out that despite the increase, nearly 10,000 fewer patients than 12 months ago were waiting more than a year. Compared to March 1991, there were almost 100,000 fewer people waiting more than a year.

The increase in that category over the past six months, however, is embarrassing for the Government, not least because of its repeated argument, used again by Dr Mawhinney yesterday, that: 'The number of people waiting is not important provided they are treated within a reasonable time. What is important is the time individuals have to wait.'

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said the figures were 'very bad news for patients. The number waiting over a year has risen substantially for the second quarter running, removing the final fig leaf covering the Secretary of State's defence of the NHS changes'.

The rise came as Tom Sackville, a health minister, said ministers planned to check to what extent health authorities were buying care from private hospitals and clinics.

He told a conference in London - held to relaunch the drive to attract private finance to the NHS - that more NHS patients could be sent to be treated in the private sector. He said ministers would not force health authorities and GP fundholders to do that, but 'what we can do is keep pointing out they have a duty to champion the patient'.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Provisional Waiting Time Figures: ----------------------------------------------------------------- June and September 1993 compared Region 0-11 months 12-23 months Number Change Number Change Northern 61,520 -0.8% 3,432 18.2% Yorkshire 72,720 0.7% 6,962 11.8% Trent 84,433 0.5% 6,128 4.1% East Anglian 40,132 2.5% 3,633 8.8% North West Thames 55,469 1.3% 6,013 10.2% North East Thames 88,505 0.9% 10,746 11.9% South East Thames 74,755 3.7% 6,692 5.2% South West Thames 59,775 4.2% 4,195 20.4% Wessex 58,728 0.1% 4,350 -5.2% Oxford 42,867 0.7% 2,495 -0.3% South Western 63,689 -2.5% 1,215 14.9% West Midlands 101,140 1.0% 5,453 21.6% Mersey 58,372 -2.0% 175 -83.4% North Western 89,462 1.6% 7,671 4.7% All Regions 949,567 0.9% 69,160 7.6% *SHAs 10,349 -1.2% 1,352 14.1% TOTAL 959,916 0.8% 70,512 7.7% *Special Health Authorities are the London post-graduate hospitals The table shows the number of people waiting for the specified periods, and the percentage change in the waiting lists for each period in comparison with waiting lists in June this year. Figures for in-patients and day cases are combined. -----------------------------------------------------------------