Encouraging a media feeding frenzy is not the way to tackle waiting lists

Here we go. The NHS plan has been out for two weeks and already the hit squads are going in.

Seven trusts have been 'red lighted' for their waiting-list policy and can now expect a well-publicised visit from the 'waiting-list busters' of the national patient access team.

The NHS Confederation welcomed the move, saying it showed ministers realised that providing support for trusts faced with complex problems was 'more effective than brandishing sticks'.

This is an astonishing response.

At least one trust chief executive learned that his organisation was to be 'named and shamed' when warned by his press office.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals trust asked for advice on dealing with rising outpatient lists - but that did not stop its name being fed to the national press. If this is supportive, what does punative look like?

The trusts involved were putting out brave statements this week about looking forward to working with the access team, whose head, Sue Jennings, has been making soothing noises.

Not for the first time, it would seem, one of the government's watchdog agencies is less inclined to savage its flock than ministerial rhetoric would have reporters believe - or than ministers might like. This could explain the relatively muted reaction to the naming and shaming. Perhaps managers have decided that ministers will play media games, while the reality is a little different.

The access team promises to help managers focus on a complex problem, bringing in time and expertise to help solve it. It must be hoped that this approach bears fruit. Otherwise, more patients are likely to suffer the worry of waiting to see a consultant. There will undoubtedly be more naming and shaming headlines. And the government's whole strategy for 'saving' the NHS could suffer.

The NHS plan is big on ideas for increasing NHS capacity. It has almost nothing to say about reducing demand. The implication is that with enough new beds, doctors, nurses and management incentives the NHS can cope with everything patients want from it.

Say it quietly, but this is not likely to be so. Local strategies to iron out delays, change the habits of GPs, guide people away from the acute sector and even help them to look after themselves will all be needed if the popular aspects of the NHS plan are to succeed. Getting all that in place will need a lot more than a few lists of 'failing' trusts plastered across empty summer news pages.

Perhaps if ministers really wanted to be 'supportive' they could admit this, instead of rushing for easy headlines and leaving the real work to be done behind the hype.