Health secretary Andrew Lansley has blamed the “severe winter” for an increase in NHS waiting times.
He told MPs that average hospital waiting times were “stable” and a snapshot of figures in February was “not a fair comparison to be made”.
New figures released last week by health charity the King’s Fund showed that NHS waiting times were at their highest level for three years, with nearly 15 per cent of hospital inpatients waiting more than 18 weeks in February.
The charity pointed to a steady increase in waiting times for hospital treatment since the government relaxed the 18-week target in June 2010.
At Commons question time, Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) asked: “Do you accept this is a direct result of your actions, particularly the abolition of the centrally-managed target in June of last year?”
Mr Lansley replied: “Let me tell you that waiting times in the NHS are stable. For patients who are admitted to the NHS, an average of nine weeks’ waiting time. For patients who are outpatients, three and a half weeks.
“I think people in the NHS might reasonably say that to choose February 2011, in the immediate wake of a severe winter, with the largest snow outbreak since 1999 - with critical care beds being occupied meaning that patients for elective operations could not be admitted - was not a fair comparison to be made.”
Labour’s Gavin Shuker provoked gales of laughter from opposition benches when he said: “You appeared to blame the rise in waiting times on the wrong kind of snow.
“Can we infer from that therefore that if waiting times continue to rise over the coming months, you will reinstate those targets that brought waiting times low and kept them low?”
Mr Lansley insisted that during the winter, hospitals had had to deal with “a combination of circumstances that meant we had unprecedented pressure on critical care beds”.