The government insists it is 'well on target' to meet its election manifesto pledge to cut waiting lists by 100,000 at the end of this Parliament - despite figures showing an increase of more than 10,000 waiting at the end of January.

Health minister John Denham described the figures as a 'relatively small rise' given that they coincided with a 'severe flu outbreak' and 'the highest level of acute bronchial infections in the elderly for 15 years'.

Opposition parties took the chance to criticise the targets, with Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox claiming that efforts to cut waiting lists had had a knock-on effect of doubling the number of people waiting for outpatient appointments.

Two days earlier, Dr Fox told the House of Commons that the 'distortion of a simple clinical priority' was the 'ethical flaw' in the government's policy.

The figures show a total of 1,118,700 people waiting at the end of January - a number which will need to be cut by about 40,000 if the government is to meet its pledge by the next election.