Scrapping health service targets sends out a “risky message”, a former chief executive of the NHS has warned.

Lord Crisp called on the government to ensure that the NHS still regarded waiting times as an important issue.

His comments followed Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s announcement this week that GPs will no longer need to see patients within 48 hours, while the four-hour maximum A&E waiting time is being relaxed.

Central scrutiny of the 18-week referral to treatment target will also come to an end.

Lord Crisp, chief executive of the NHS from 2000 to 2006, told health minister Earl Howe at question time: “While I think what the government actually announced very recently was some very minor and probably quite sensible changes to targets, you also sent a very mixed messages.

“The message you have sent is about localness, which is very welcomed, but also a very risky message that waiting no longer matters.

“How are you going to ensure that people in the NHS understand waiting is still a very important issue?”

Lord Howe replied: “I believe the message you want sent has actually been sent by the NHS chief executive in his letter to NHS bodies, it is certainly a message the government wishes to send, that timeliness is important.

“A great deal has been achieved, we don’t want to squander that, but we do think that clinicians now should be given the responsibility to prioritise patients and treatments for themselves and not have central performance management dictated from above.”