Waiting-list figures published before the election showed that Scotland had fallen significantly below the 84,000 that Labour inherited in 1997, but the 81,968 people waiting for treatment at the end of March fell far short of the party's 1997 pledge to reduce lists to 75,000.

Managers had hoped to move beyond waiting-list targets, but the indications are that they will continue to be a headache for the new unified health boards, due to come on stream in November and that there will be pressure to meet the target by March 2002.

Donald McNeill, secretary of the Institute of Healthcare Management in Scotland, said:

'Waiting-list targets are still very much part of the agenda under the new performance assessment framework. But once the target is reached, we hope it will be consigned to history.'

The Scottish Executive said 80 NHS trusts are on track to deliver on their waiting-list targets. A spokeswoman said: 'Twelve have met them already and all NHS trusts have plans in place to deliver the 75,000 target by 31 March 2002. Scotland also continues to have the shortest waiting times in the UK - more than half of patients never go on a waiting list and more than 80 per cent of patients are seen within three months.'

She also reiterated the move of emphasis from waiting-list numbers to waiting times.

In Wales, Labour insisted that a rise in both inpatient and outpatient waiting-list numbers in April was 'just a blip' in an overall downward trend. Fo*ur health authorities reported more people awaiting treatment, with inpatient numbers up by 800 to 66,338 and outpatient waiting lists up by 4,100 during the month to 181,737.

The figures were seized on by opposition parties as a sign of failure of Labour's waiting-list initiative.