Broadcast: Monday 26 February 2007 08:00 PM
Almost half of the NHS hospitals across England are being forced to delay operations to save money, a Dispatches survey has found.
A least 43 per cent of Acute NHS Trusts are now operating under "minimum-waiting times" - with treatments often postponed for more than 20 weeks, despite staff and equipment being available.
The figures are a new blow to beleaguered Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who has promised to resign if the NHS fails to balance its books by the end of the financial year.
"Labour's NHS mismanagement has reached crisis proportions," said Andrew Lansley, Shadow Health Secretary. "Staff are being paid to do nothing in the current quarter because Patricia Hewitt needs to get the NHS back into the black by April to save her job," he said.
The survey showed that "minimum waiting times" are, in some hospitals, approaching 26 weeks - the government's much-vaunted maximum wait for in-patient treatment.
The delays were described as "unnecessary" and "crazy" by Dr James Johnson, Chairman of the British Medical Association, told Dispatches. "The really ridiculous thing is that in the hospitals concerned, the beds are probably empty, with doctors and nurses doing nothing. They've just been told not to do the work by bureaucrats - and that goes against absolutely everything we stand for as doctors".
The latest NHS accounts, released last week, show a health service deficit of £1.3bn in the third quarter of this year, up from £1.2bn during the previous three months.
During the same period, the number of Primary Care Trusts in the red - the NHS funding bodies which finance hospitals - rose from 39 to 47 per cent. But the Department of Health still predicts an overall surplus of £13m by April.
The Royal College of Nursing described this surplus was a "smoke and mirrors figure" achieved only by "delaying patient services, raiding training budgets and shedding jobs". The latest NHS accounts show redundancies this year running at almost five-times the typical rate.
In a Dispatches interview, Mrs Hewitt said: "The NHS is on track to get back into financial balance for the current year. That is what we promised to do and that is what will happen as a result of very difficult decisions that have to be made throughout the NHS".
The Health Secretary described minimum waiting times as "unfortunate and frustrating, but necessary" She said any suggestion patient treatment was being delayed in an attempt to save her job was "deeply insulting".
In a separate survey, Dispatches also unearthed alarming new evidence about waiting times for post-operative radiotherapy - a vital cancer treatment.
Unless such treatment is available with 28 days, patient-safety is threatend, says the Royal College of Radiologists, as there is a much higher chance of cancers recurring.
But in five NHS hospitals, Dispatches learnt of average waiting times for such treatment exceeding 28 days - which means many patients wait much longer..
The survey also uncovered that in 2 NHS treatment centres, 75 per cent of cancer patients are forced to wait beyond the 28-day safety limit for post-operative radio therapy.
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