Waiting-lists fall dismissed as a `fiddle'

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The Independent Online
HOSPITALS YESTERDAY chalked up a record fall in NHS waiting lists - but were immediately warned that the rapidly worsening flu outbreak could mean that the gains are lost.

The total number of patients waiting to be admitted to NHS hospitals fell by 31,400 in November - the seventh monthly fall in succession - to stand at 1,162,100, within a whisker of the level the Government inherited when it came to power in May 1997.

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, who has seen the lists fall by more than 150,000 since they hit a peak inApril 1998, commended the "skill and commitment" of NHS staff but opposition parties said the demand for cuts was politically driven and was distorting clinical priorities.

NHS managers cautioned that December and January were likely to show a different picture, as hospitals concentrated on emergency admissions and the flu outbreak. Mr Dobson acknowledged that waiting lists were likely to grow again as a result. He said: "These figures cover the period up until the end of November.Understandably and quite rightly, since then a large part of the efforts of the staff have been devoted to dealing with the serious winter pressures that we are experiencing."

Yesterday's figures also showed that the number of patients waiting for treatment for more than 12 months fell by 4,600 in November to 56,000. The total waiting list is now only 4,000 above the level of 1,158,000 that Labour inherited and which Mr Dobson pledged to better by April of this year.

Provided hospitals can cope with the current flu outbreak and the weather for the rest of the winter is not excessively severe, the NHS should comfortably meet that goal.

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative spokeswoman on health, said the figures would come as no comfort to patients forced to wait on hospital trolleys for treatment. "Labour care far more about meeting their discredited `early pledge' than they do about addressing the real medical priorities. This is just a fiddle to cover up a failure - patients will be neither fooled nor impressed," she said.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman, said the Government's "obsession" with reducing waiting lists was leading to doctors' clinical priorities becoming distorted. "We have already seen, in the emergency winter crisis, the effects of this as hospitals have been forced to keep open beds for waiting-list initiative patients while emergency admissions wait on trolleys."