Published: 24/03/2005, Volume II5, No. 5947 Page 10

NHS financial woes dominate. Last Friday several papers printed trusts' financial positions at the end of March 2004 - courtesy of government figures handed to the press by the Lib Dems in full electioneering mode.

They show that nine acute trusts were between£10m and£48m overdrawn while 53 others were between£1m and£10m in the red.

And the papers say it could get worst this year.

Earlier this month an HSJ survey found that trusts were facing a year-end deficit of£341m this year.

The Express claimed an exclusive on the Lib Demsupplied figures - even though The Times had the same ones and put the story on page one.

'Hospitals could face ward closures and have operations cancelled after new figures revealed they are millions in debt, ' screamed The Express.

'The crisis could reach unprecedented levels as hospitals reveal how changes to the NHS have smashed their bank balances and could even threaten their services.' The Times pointed out that one third of all trusts were in debt, and warned that the situation could get even worse as the consultant contract pushes up costs.

It noted that London's St George's and Hammersmith hospitals had cut beds, and Leeds Teaching Hospital (sic) had announced plans to shed 230 beds and four operating theatres.

Health editor Nigel Hawkes said hospitals were facing problems because they had been too successful in meeting their targets, meaning workloads were rising with no equivalent increase in funding.

A day later, The Star and The Mirror joined the attack, and quoted a Department of Health spokesman: 'We expect the NHS to be close to financial balance by the year end.' It is an interesting change of emphasis - when the HSJ did its survey, the DoH was insistent that trusts would reach balance.

Perhaps ministers are realising the situation really could be as bad as opposition parties have been warning.