Blair: Waiting list cuts will ‘transform’ NHS

Tony Blair committed today to “transform” the way health services are delivered, pledging that no patient will wait more than 18 weeks for NHS treatment by the end of 2008.

The prime minister this morning visited King’s College Hospital in London to look at the new innovations being introduced to cut waiting times. These include extended day surgeries, computerised blood sampling and a one-stop shop for scans and treatments in the pregnancy and gynaecology unit.

Accompanied by health secretary Patricia Hewitt, Mr Blair spoke of the NHS’s achievements since 1997, when, he claimed, it was common for patients to wait 18 months between referral and treatment. Now patients can hope for an average wait of seven to eight weeks, the prime minister said.

Earlier this month, Mr Blair had described excessive waiting times as the biggest problem facing the NHS when Labour assumed power a decade ago. Achieving this final reduction in average waits would mark a transformation of the health service, he told reporters today.

“Of course there are always ways you can make the changes better, but if you imagine getting to this 18-week maximum – that is for the whole process from the time you see your GP and are diagnosed right through to the operation – that will be a real transformation within the health service,” Mr Blair said.

“But it will only be done if we carry on the process of change… just like everything else in the 21st century, the NHS cannot carry on as if the world was still as it was decades ago.’

Patricia Hewitt added: “This is about the NHS helping change people’s lives by improving care and cutting unnecessary delays. This will lead to a much better experience for patients.”

The government’s plans were buoyed by 13 ‘early achievers’, who have committed to achieving the 18 week maximum wait by the end of this year.

However, the Liberal Democrats have accused the prime minister of “living in cloud cuckoo land” over his pledge to reduce maximum waiting times to 18 weeks.

The Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: “The prime minister is living in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks that more central targets will be met by hospitals deep in deficit who are already cutting jobs and services.

“The reality is that in many parts of the country health trusts deep in deficit are slowing down patient referrals, extending hospital waiting times rather than reducing them.”

He added: “It is not surprising that those who know most about the NHS are disillusioned with the government’s mishandling of the health service.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) welcomed the idea of treating patients more quickly, but queried the government’s proposals for implementing the targets, including around the clock operations.

James Johnson, chairman of the BMA, said that plans for extended surgery hours faced two stumbling blocks; lack of funds, which prevent PCTs from purchasing more operations, and workforce planning.

“Health professionals we have trained at enormous public expense are going overseas to find work. For surgery to be performed over extended hours we have to have the skilled staff to do the work and there has been no adequate workforce planning to allow this to happen,” he claimed.