NHS waiting lists grow under Labour

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 28 February 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:645
  1. John Warden
  1. parliamentary correspondent, London

    The British government admitted its embarrassment last week that NHS waiting lists for hospital admission in England have risen by 100000—more than 1000 a week—since Labour came to office last May. This is in contrast with its election pledge to reduce waiting lists by 100000.

    The lengthening lists are a predictable consequence of a deliberate shift of resources to cope more effectively with winter emergency admissions—a political trade off begun by the Conservatives in 1996 and reinforced by Labour last year. The health secretary, Frank Dobson, acknowledged that the new figures were bad but were the cost of avoiding a winter crisis and its horror headlines of patients being kept waiting on trolleys.

    He promised that by the end of March nobody would have waited more than 18 months and that by the next election the lists would be shorter than the 1160000 that Labour inherited. The new figures, which are the highest on record, show that at the end of December the waiting list totalled 1262300, a rise of 54700 (4.5%) in three months, or 14.2% in a year. During 1997 the number of patients waiting more than a year increased threefold, up from 22200 to 68300. At the end of December, 974 patients had been waiting for longer than the 18 months guaranteed in the patient's charter compared with only 123 a year earlier.

    All the English regions show longer lists, with the greatest pressure in London and the south east, where half of the 18 month waiting lists are concentrated in five hospitals. The problem is compounded by more patients coming on to waiting lists than are being treated, despite a 2.3% increase in inpatient activity.

    Mr Dobson said that it would take a long time to turn the figures round. While the government could not just throw the public's money at the problem, he was confident that ultimately the NHS would get more money. An action team set up last November has begun pilot projects to reduce waiting lists. These include moving treatment closer to patients' homes and reviewing clinical priorities.

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