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UK waiting lists grow longer

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 30 May 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:1625
  1. John Warden, parliamentary correspondent
  1. BMJ

    With more people waiting for admission to hospital in Britain than are on the dole seeking work, NHS waiting lists have become the main test of Labour's political virility, and more so after another steep rise in the figures occurred in the first quarter of 1998, as was shown last week.

    The number of patients waiting at the end of March for a hospital bed in England was 1297700, an increase of 35700 (2.8%) since the previous quarter, compared with a rise of 2% in inpatient activity. In Scotland the rise was 1850, to a total of 88290.

    The total of patients waiting to be admitted to hospitals in England has risen by 12%, or 140000, in the past year in contrast to the government's election pledge to reduce the list by 100000.

    On the positive side, the rate of increase between the last two quarters has slowed by about 20000, which resulted in the elimination of all waiting times of 18 months. The number of patients waiting over one year has also fallen, and 22% of those currently waiting have been given an admission date.

    The new waiting lists do not reflect the impact of the £417m ($670m) allocated from 1 April to reduce waiting lists in England by 13% to around 1108000 next April. Last week the health secretary, Frank Dobson, set waiting list targets for each of the eight English regions. They range from reductions of 18.3% in the West Midlands to 9.4% in Northern and Yorkshire, compared with March 1988. The largest numerical reductions are set for North Thames (34700) and South Thames (28700).

    There will be rewards of up to 10% extra funding for health authorities that hit their targets and sanctions on those that fall behind, in the form of interventions by “waiting list task forces” to take remedial action. In the Commons, the prime minister, Tony Blair, said that more money will be provided when higher spending on the NHS is considered prudent. The government is committed to reduce waiting lists by a further 100000 by the time of the next general election.

    Simon Hughes, the health spokesman of the Liberal Democrats, sharply criticised the new figures: “When Labour made its pre-election pledge ‘to cut waiting lists by 100000 as a first step,’ they did not say that waiting lists would first go up by 140000. When Labour made its pre-election claim that the NHS was in crisis, they did not say that voting Labour would result in the crisis getting worse.”

    Both the NHS Confederation and the BMA called for attention to focus on the time that people are waiting for different types of treatment rather than the numbers of people on waiting lists.

    Embedded Image

    One of Labour's key election pledges was to cut waiting lists


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