The number of patients waiting more than a year for hospital treatment has fallen to a record low, according to government figures released yesterday.
A total of 28,204 people - around 3 per cent of the hospital waiting list overall - had been waiting more than 12 months at the end of September. In 1991, more than 150,000 patients waited over 12 months, with almost a third of them waiting for more than two years.
The provisional figures show that 42 patients were waiting more than 18 months - in breach of Patient Charter guarantees - and all but two of these were with the Royal Hospitals NHS Trust, in London.
Gerald Malone, the health minister, said this was "unacceptable" and steps had been taken to ensure most of these patients had now been treated. "I am delighted that the two-year wait is now consigned to history. I hope it will not be long before the 18-month wait joins it there," he said.
Overall, the NHS waiting list is still more than a million people but Mr Malone said that the average time for waiting had fallen from more than nine months to four months over the last five years.
"We are very conscious that what matters to patients is not the size of the waiting list but how long they have to wait," he said.
He paid tribute to the "remarkable progress" hospitals and health authorities had made in reducing waiting times. "As purchasers get more involved in their contracts [with providers] they are driving waiting times down," he said.
However, a spokesperson for the Radical Statistics Health Group, which monitors government statistics, said the new data was inconclusive.
"We need to know the extent to which hospital doctors are delaying putting patients on the waiting list," she said. "We need to know what proportion of patients are self-deferred - those who have been given admission dates but who defer to a later date, and we need to know about the severity of the conditions being treated.
"It may be that some people who have been waiting longer for less severe conditions are being pushed ahead of people waiting shorter times for more disabling conditions."
The provisional figures show that in the three months up to the end of September 1995, 1,041,025 patients were waiting for hospital treatment, a fall of 0.6 per cent since the last quarterly figures in June. Of these, 1,012,821 had been waiting for up to 11 months; 28,162 for 12-17 months, and 42 for 18 months or longer.
A spokeswoman for the Royal Hospitals NHS Trust said that at present there are 11 patients who had been waiting over 18 months. Nine of them had admission dates and will be admitted within the next six weeks.
She added that two wards - a 24-bed medical ward and a temporary eight bed ward - had been opened at the trust hospitals to deal specifically with the problem of long waiters.
t Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, announced an "efficiency scrutiny" to reduce bureaucracy in NHS trusts and health authorities. He has established a special task force to eliminate unnecessary paperwork following a similar initiative in GP practices.
NHS waiting lists
North/Yorks 146,948 Trent 93,862 Anglia/Oxford 108,675 N Thames 166,655 S Thames 151,814 South & West 118,947 W Midlands 86,842 N West 165,361 All regions 1,039,104 SHAs* 1,921 Total 1,041,025
* Special Health Authorities, which run specialised centres such as Great Ormond Street and teaching hospitals
Numbers at Sept 95