Published: 10/04/2003, Volume II3, No. 5850 Page 6 7

Operational managers and trust chief executives were 'exhausted' and 'relieved' as unaudited figures showed that the NHS roughly met its key end-of-year access targets - but only by the skin of its teeth.

Several managers privately admitted they had met targets on inpatients - that no patient should wait more than a year - with just hours to spare.

Preliminary figures collated by the Department of Health showed that just 63 patients had waited more than a year for inpatient treatment by the end of March.

Fifty seven of the waiters who breached the target were at East and North Hertfordshire trust, HSJ can reveal.

The Audit Commission said last month that the trust's waiting-list data had been deliberately manipulated and the trust said an independent external review of management of waiting lists is still ongoing. All the patients who had passed the target date had refused the offer of treatment with an alternative provider.

Chief executive Nick Carver, who joined the trust in November, said: 'I am very sorry that any breaches occurred at all, not least for the patients concerned. The trust's waiting-list systems have historically been extremely poor and unreliable and probably under-reported the true position. My new team and I are working, with the support of the Modernisation Agency, to put things right.'

Nationally, the target for outpatient appointments was also just missed, with 54 patients waiting for a first outpatient appointment for more than 21 weeks.

But 92.9 per cent of accident and emergency attenders were dealt with inside four hours, beating the target of 90 per cent. All patients waiting for heart operations were seen within nine months.The total number waiting for inpatient treatment was less than 1 million, according to the unaudited information released within days of the end of the financial year.

Detailed figures produced last Friday on the position at the end of February revealed that to meet the inpatient targets, 6,700 patients who had waited over a year had to be treated last month.

Lewisham Hospital trust theatre surgery general manager Deborah Hallas said her staff were 'relieved and exhausted'.

'We were on tenterhooks and I think the main feeling is of sheer relief that It is over and we made it.

We have been worrying about this for 12 months.'

She said the commitment of staff and engagement of clinicians had been key to success, which had been dependent on weekend working throughout February and March.

Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals trust director of communications Nick Samuels admitted efforts to meet inpatients targets went right to the wire.

He laughed: 'I think we met the target easily - we had five hours to spare.'

Mr Samuels said the success meant 'massive commitment' from surgeons at the trust, which had been working at 98 per cent capacity all year.

Whittington Hospital trust director of operations Tara Donnelly said that in order to meet its inpatient targets, the trust needed to get its waiting list down by 614 patients during the last month of the year, 'a huge management challenge'which the trust achieved bar a handful of patients.

Ms Donnelly said clinicians had been 'fantastic'. She said the trust's chair brought out champagne when the figures were revealed, and that the trust was now planning celebrations to involve all staff.

At Royal United Hospital Bath trust, Paula Friend, director of service renewal, admitted achieving the inpatient targets meant a lot of last-minute work.

She said that although the trust had taken short-term measures to meet this year's targets, a number of innovations would bring permanent results.

'The staff have been terrific - and not just the consultants and admin people - but everyone.'