The official figures, released in partial form by Conservative Central Office, are provisional, but indicate, at the very least, that the NHS continued to become more efficient during a year of upheaval.
Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, said: 'The success of the NHS reforms has exceeded even our best expectations.' She taunted Robin Cook, Labour's health spokesman, saying that he had been 'spectacularly wrong' about the outcome of the changes.
If these 'fast track' figures are confirmed by the more robust, but slower, Korner statistical series, they would suggest that the NHS improved its performance even more than in a usual year. The provisional figures indicate that self-governing trusts, with a reported 8.2 per cent increase in patients treated, outperformed non-trust hospitals, which were up 6.9 per cent.
Mrs Bottomley said: 'Increases of this order are much more than double the annual average increase in patient activity since 1979.'
However, the reliability of statistical returns by hospitals over the past year is being questioned by some health authorities. In the new NHS market, hospitals can expect more cash if they record treatment of more patients. So any undercounting has been eliminated over the past year.
There is an incentive, for example, to count a patient treated by two different doctors in a hospital as two treatment episodes. Patients who are in and out of hospital may be registered several times.
Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokeswoman, said: 'These figures are deeply suspect. Whenever we have probed, we have discovered that statistics about the NHS don't mean what the Conservatives would have us think they mean. The twisted truth of these systematic success stories is exposed by the real experience of people who know that the NHS is getting worse.
'The figures tell us little about the state of the NHS, but a lot more about how the Tory party is intent on opting all hospitals out of the NHS.'
The continuing rows between the Tories and Labour over NHS statistics - and the fact that Conservative Central Office, rather than the Department of Health, released this set - will fuel the argument that health statistics should be collated independently.