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The UK government has said that an end to long waiting times for treatment in the NHS in England is finally in sight.
The health minister Andy Burnham said that long delays between referral by GPs and treatment in hospital would be banished for good—with no one waiting more than 18 weeks—by December next year.
New figures show that in March 2007 just under half of all patients in England received their first hospital treatment within 18 weeks of GP referral.
The figures also showed, however, that one patient in eight was still waiting more than a year for treatment and that last year nearly half a million people waited more than 52 weeks.
Nevertheless, Mr Burnham insisted that the latest figures provided firm evidence of progress made towards the December 2008 deadline, first announced in the government's 2004 NHS improvement plan.
He said, “When it gets there, it will be a huge achievement. And many will be first seen by their GP and then treated in hospital within 10 weeks.
“This is in my view the end of waiting. I think this represents the end of the culmination of our 10 year programme.”
Health unions and NHS managers gave qualified support to Mr Burnham's claims.
Jonathan Fielden, chairman of the BMA's consultants' committee, said, “The fact that almost half of all patients are being treated in 18 weeks is encouraging and is a testament to how hard NHS doctors and other health professionals have been working.” But he added that there was still “a long way to go.”
Nigel Edwards, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, the body that represents many NHS trusts, said, “There is optimism within the health service that the 18 week target will be met by December 2008. However, we must not forget that this is probably the most challenging target that the health service has been asked to take on. Meeting the target will require many NHS trusts to completely redesign how patients flow through the system.”
Mr Burnham said that it was neither possible nor desirable to cut the guaranteed maximum waiting limit below 18 weeks. This was because some patients needed time to prepare for operations, and some treatments could not be given immediately for clinical reasons.
But the shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley, disputed this. He said that an 18 week target was “not sufficiently ambitious for many treatments” and that it “could and should be less.”
The Liberal Democrats' health spokesman, Norman Lamb, said, “These figures demonstrate how far we have to go. Behind the statistics, thousands of sick people are still waiting more than a year for hospital treatment. This is a daily tragedy. Why does the government not publish how long people are waiting over a year?”
He said that in some parts of the country, and in some medical specialties, the NHS still had a very long way to go to meet the December 2008 target.
For more information see www.18weeks.nhs.uk.