Published: 05/05/2005, Volume II5, No. 5954 Page 10

The prime minister was 'astonished'. The audience was apoplectic.

David Dimbleby was euphoric. Doctors were playing hard to get, and it was all the fault of government targets. Cue slapdash policy U-turn.

The British Medical Association and various rebellious GPs have been lobbying hard for a relaxation of the government's 100 per cent 48-hour access target for over a year. It took a few disgruntled voter-patients airing their views on television for just a few minutes to win a concession from Tony Blair, who clearly hasn't done his NHS homework lately.

Rather than fuel further headlines over legal advice and Iraq, the surprising story that arose from last week's triumvirate party leader Question Time special was Mr Blair's cluelessness on naughty GPs and John Reid's subsequent big blunt policy U-turn.

'I am absolutely astounded at that, ' said Mr Blair after outraged audience member Diana Church lambasted him about 'government targets' preventing her from booking an appointment more than 48 hours in advance.

He added: 'I have to say It is news to me that doctors are instructing that you have to come within 48 hours' and then promised to look into it.

The next morning, health secretary John Reid told Today that a Labour government 'could introduce a measure' as part of the current general medical services contract review that would set a target that 'a minimum of 80 per cent' of patients would be seen within 48 hours.

This, he said, would 'balance the [desire of] the vast majority of people who want to see a GP quickly with the desire of those people who want to see them conveniently at a time that is convenient to them'.

The result? A weekend of debate over the NHS target culture. Hardly what the doctor ordered for Labour in the run-up to polling day.