Published: 12/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5822 Page 6 7

Waiting lists in Northern Ireland have hit an all-time high.

The numbers of 'excess waiters' - those waiting 12 months or more for admission for cardiac surgery and 18 months or more for other specialties - rose by almost 5,000 between June 2001 and June of this year.

This brings the total number of people waiting for operations to almost 60,000, according to figures published last week by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The figures show a rise of 4,782 to 59,674, although the increase from March to June this year was only 678.

The latest increase in waiting lists was sharply criticised by doctors' leaders and interest groups.

Dr Brian Patterson, vice-chair of the British Medical Association's Northern Ireland council, said: 'It must be remembered that each statistic represents a patient who is suffering because of the failure by the Department of Health here to address this totally unacceptable situation.'

The government published a document on changing the shape of the Northern Ireland health service in June.

Developing Better Services was the response to the Hayes Review of acute services, commissioned in July 2000 and currently subject to consultation.

William McKee, president of the Institute of Health Care Management and chief executive of Northern Ireland's largest acute trust, the Royal Group of Hospitals trust in Belfast, said he believed that the waiting-list increases could be tackled.

'For years the health service here has been in decline - funding did not keep pace with elsewhere in the UK, ' he said.

'Now that slide has been stopped. We still have a long way to go before we can provide services on a par with the best in Europe.'

Health minister Bairbre De Brun said that most of the rise in recent months had been due to new fertility services.

But she warned that senior managers would have to tackle waiting lists as a matter of urgency.

'I am concerned about this increase, small as it is' she said.

'Our target this year is to hold waiting lists at their present levels and I shall now be looking to the service, and particularly chief executives of trusts, to get us back on course. Now is the time for the service to deliver.'

The number of English patients waiting more than 12 months for inpatient treatment dropped by 1,600 last month and 26,400 over the past year to 18,900.

Health minister John Hutton said the latest figures showed the NHS was making 'steady and consistent progress' in tackling waiting times. However, the total number of patients waiting for treatment in England rose by 400 in June to 1,055,200.

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