Record waiting list figures `buried'

The Department of Health has failed to publicise the latest waiting list figures which reveal the number of people waiting for in-patient treatment last September reached 1,071,101 - the highest total since records began.

The department's decision to bury the news of the statistics contrasts sharply with the trumpeting by ministers of the "provisional" figures for that same period, published last November, which showed a slight drop in the number of patients waiting in the previous quarter to June.

The episode was yesterday condemned by Labour as another example of the Department of Health's selective use of statistics to highlight "good news" and bury "bad news."

Margaret Beckett, Labour's spokeswoman on health, said it showed how the Conservatives were putting into practice a strategy proposed by John Maples, deputy chairman of the party, in a leaked document, to highlight "killer facts" to present a positive picture of the Government's record. The Maples' memo said the best thing for the National Health Service would be "nil publicity".

Mrs Beckett said: "When the provisional waiting list figure was published ministers were boasting and have continued to boast that figures for waiting lists and patients treated support the case for their `reforms'.

"When corrected final figures showed a record high, ministers were uncharacteristically silent. No press release was even issued. This is yet another example of the Government's selective use of statistics.

"Virginia Bottomley claims that the general public are not concerned that waiting lists are at their highest ever level - this is simply not true."

Last month the Independent published an analysis by Radical Statistics, an independent group, of statistics published by the Department of Health, which concluded that ministers used figures in a selective and misleading way. In particular, the department concentrates on "waiting times" rather than numbers of patients waiting, where the longer term trend shows a steady increase.

In November the department sent out a bulletin showing the provisional figures for admissions and patients waiting for September 1994 was 1,063,302, a 0.7 per cent drop since the provisional figure for June of 1,070,887. The next day both the Times and Guardian ran stories saying waiting lists were shorter.

The latest statistical bulletin, which shows the final, updated waiting list figures for England up to September 1994, was placed in the House of Commons library on 5 January.

Normally such bulletins are distributed widely, and a press statement issued by the Department of Health. The department says the statistical bulletins were sent to newspapers but it was decided that no press release should be issued. A spokesman said that press releases were not always sent out and in this case it was decided the figures were "not newsworthy".

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