HSJ rode the Clapham omnibus to find out what people thought of New Labour's track-record on the health service. It found many of them less than enthusiastic. Our man with the notepad and travelcard: Mark Gould

Move along now! For the man on the Clapham omnibus would like to know what this government has ever done for the NHS.

And if prime minister Tony Blair was looking to set up a focus group to find out what the men and women in south London think of its track-record on the NHS in the run-up to the election, he could do worse than clamber aboard the upper deck of the 159 bus.

HSJ spent a pleasant sunny afternoon in London last week, discussing the NHS under New Labour with passengers travelling from Marble Arch through Clapham, Brixton and Streatham.

With only 20 passengers on the bus, it is not exactly scientific, but if this pre-election poll is indicative of how the rest of the country is feeling, it presents a worrying message to the current administration.

With the first skirmishes of a general election battle being fought, the people who were given the ultimatum 'vote Labour to save the NHS' in the run-up to the May 1997 campaign have told HSJ that they think the NHS has got worse under Labour, not better.

Thirteen people out of a random selection of 20 questioned said the NHS had stayed the same or got worse under Labour. A quarter said they or a member of their family had a recent bad experience at the hands of the NHS.

And what is worrying people most? High-profile tragedies such as Bristol and Alder Hey or mass murderers and bunglers like Harold Shipman and Rodney Ledward? No. Not one of our interviewees listed them when asked to name the worst thing to happen to the NHS in recent years. It was waiting lists, staff shortages and lack of funding that stuck in the mind.

One of Labour's big five 1997 pledges was to cut waiting lists by 100,000 by the next parliament.

That is roughly on track. But the Labour spin machine's enthusiasm for an 'instant gratification NHS' of walk-in centres, easy access and airline-style bookings may be creating impossible aspirations in the minds of voters.

The perception on the 159 is that waiting for healthcare is unacceptable and that waiting-list problems have yet to be tackled.

Emma Bostock, 32, an account manager for a large hotel chain, says Labour's biggest failure is 'the waiting-list thing'.

'It is the time waiting to see everyone. I am waiting to see a consultant now for a first appointment - that is before anything is actually done in terms of treatment - so I am on a list for a list. If you have got some condition that bothers you a lot, 14 weeks is just too long to have to suffer. '

To make matters worse, Ms Bostock's first experience of an NHS hospital was a bad one. 'I have not had many dealings with hospitals until last year when I was due to have an operation. On the day of the op the hospital phoned to say there was no bed. I was really anxious anyway so it was a massive deal to me. '

Bunny Matthews, 86, has 'rubbed shoulders with some musical greats' during his career as a recording engineer, but he is less than impressed with some of the tunes the NHS is playing.

'It has big queues, people on trolleys, poor hygiene. So much of the time they seem to be at breaking point. Having said that, I had a heart attack about five years ago and the care I received was excellent, but I haven't seen any real changes for the better since. '

Artist David Holland is concerned about Labour's obsession with spin: 'I have seen nothing in the past four years that has been of real benefit - it has all been cosmetic. '

Retired post-office worker Dennis McKenzie, 64, has no complaints about his own treatment. He thinks the NHS has got better under Labour.

'I have a particular condition and have been seeing specialists for the past 20 years and I think that the service has got better lately. But the biggest problem is still hospital waiting. '

Daniel Winson, 27, a nurse on a surgical ward at Kingston Hospital, thinks the patient experience of the NHS is much the same as it was in 1997.

'They have put a lot of money in the NHS. Nurses' pay has improved, but they have a long way to go there. It is also good in terms of the way that I am employed.

'But for patients it is sometimes very frustrating because a lack of resources, medicines or equipment means that you can't do all you want for people. '

Mature student Brian Radley, 40, who is HIV-positive, says things are getting better. 'My experience of the service has been very good - but just recently I think that HIV services have got a bit worse because treatments have improved and there are more people to treat. '

He is pleased that Labour has brought an end to wholesale hospital closures.

'One of the things that struck me was that before Labour all you seemed to hear about was Virginia Bottomley saying close Bart's or somewhere else. That sort of thing has died down now and there is a bit more stability. '

Stability is what retired builder Delbert McTaggart, 63, who was travelling with his son Olaf, 13, said the health service needed: 'I think that the NHS has got better - not that I use it much. I think Blair has given it more of the idea of a family again. He hasn't had enough time to make the changes in four years - he needs another term. '

Mr McTaggart also thinks nurses should be paid more than teachers or the police. 'I know they are not running into burning buildings or anything, but they are saving lives on a daily basis. I wouldn't say that 100 per cent of them are brilliant but most are caring. '

Just two of the 159's passengers had ever heard of primary care groups - and they are both nurses.

NHS Direct was the only New Labour initiative mentioned by name by any of the passengers.

Emma Bostock says she was forced to use NHS Direct because she couldn't get a GP appointment for two weeks.

'It was good that someone was there just to take the pressure off the system. I had just had a tetanus jab and I wasn't feeling too good and I wanted to talk to someone about the symptoms.

'When I couldn't get my GP I phoned NHS Direct and it was good that I could go through the symptoms and get some reassurance. '

Schoolgirl Tiffany Barnaby, 15, says she is particularly worried about recent news of fatal drug errors in NHS hospitals. But she, too, was impressed with NHS Direct. Asked if she wants to become a nurse or doctor she laughs: 'No, a lawyer. '

Almost 90 per cent of those surveyed feel the NHS does not have enough money and that it should be made available either by increased taxation or taking a larger share of the current tax pot.

Retired civil servant George Reynolds, 70, who says he has a long history of inadequate care in the NHS, wants to see hypothecated tax for the NHS.

Interestingly, he is the only person to mention an alternative to a Labour government. 'Put one pence in the pound on income tax like the Liberal Democrats want and earmark it for the NHS. '

People are split almost 50-50 about paying for private healthcare. Mr Reynolds is against. 'You can understand people going private because they are desperate.

While that might be OK of they can afford it, they have already paid for the NHS through taxation so they are paying twice. '

Bunny Matthews was more sceptical. 'I would go private if the fees were lower, but most private healthcare is not for people of my age - they just want young people who they can get in and out quick. '

Daniel Winson says the private sector should be used for cosmetic or routine work to ease some of the burden on the NHS.

But Brian Radley says too much emphasis is being placed on people making their own provision.

'I would not go private and I do not think that we should be faced with the idea of people selling their homes to pay for longterm care - they are not going to do that in Scotland are they?'

And on a sad personal note, while Alan Milburn might be seen as a big hitter in Cabinet circles and a future party leader, just 35 per cent of the people on the 159 bus can tell us that he is the health secretary. 'Alan someone', is one of the better replies.

Brian Radley is still clearly reminiscing about a Conservative Cabinet colleague of Virginia Bottomley. 'Is it Peter Lilley ?' he asks.

Question time

Has the NHS got better/ worse/stayed the same in the last four years?

Better - 35 per cent Worse - 50 per cent Stayed the same - 15 per cent What is your own experience of the NHS in the last four years?

Good - 40 per cent Bad - 25 per cent No change - 35 per cent Do you know what a PCG is?

Ye s - 10 per cent No - 90 per cent