Mental health trusts could be asked to hit a suite of new waiting time targets by 2020 at a cost of more than £130m a year.

The goals were revealed in a Department of Health paper, spelling out its “aspirations” for the mental health service up to 2020.

These outline ministers’ ambition to introduce the first ever access targets for mental health from next April as part of the department’s plan to introduce “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health by 2020.

This includes ensuring 75 per cent of people referred for talking therapies for common mental health problems start their treatment within six weeks and 95 per cent within 18 weeks.

The new targets will also ensure at least 50 per cent of people experiencing a first episode of psychosis will receive National Institute for Health and Care Excellence approved treatment within two weeks.

According to the paper, “an early priority” will be the development of waiting times for the treatment of eating disorders and “rapid access to mental health services for women in pregnancy or in the post natal period with a known or suspected mental health problem”.

Other aims for the mental health sector by 2020 would include:

  • ensuring 95 per cent of patients referred to talking therapies should be treated within six weeks of referral;
  • 95 per cent of patients experiencing a first episode of psychosis should be treated with a NICE approved care package within two weeks of referral; and
  • all acute trusts should have a liaison psychiatry service for all ages appropriate to the size, acuity and specialty of the hospital.

An impact assessment of the proposals estimates the total cost of meeting these aims and improving mental health data systems would be £131m a year by 2020.

The proposals would deliver benefits of more than £636m a year in terms of reduced impact on the NHS and wider benefits to society.

Chris Butler, chief executive of the Leeds and York Partnership Foundation Trust welcomed the advent of waiting times for the sector, saying: “What is good enough for the acute sector is good enough for mental health.”

“There is a golden opportunity for commissioners to work with providers and get ahead of these plans now.

“These are not just actions for providers and there will be resource issues and we need to understand what those are likely to be.”

He accepted waiting times could be subject to “gaming” but said it would be wrong if mental health providers engaged in such a practice.

“We can learn from the experience in the acute sector and be mindful of this as a risk to ensure it doesn’t happen,” he added.

NHS waiting times expert Rob Findlay said: “I am concerned that the targets they have chosen for improved access to psychological therapies could make the longest waits worse, not better.

“When the going gets tough it may be tempting for providers to at least meet one target – the six week one – even if that pushes everyone else way over 18 weeks.”