At the end of November 2006, seven Leicester patients had been waiting for more than six months for in-patient treatment following the decision to admit. That compares with 3,437 in March 1997.
It is interesting to note that on 16 November, the Secretary of State said:
“We have cut the waiting time for elective operations, hip replacements and so on… from GP referral to the operating theatre”.—[Official Report, 16 November 2006; Vol. 666, c. 147.]
Will she look into the case of Mr. Ferriman, who lives in Braunstone town, about 100 yards from her constituency? His GP referred him for a hip replacement in April last year, and he has been given an appointment for an operation in April this year. Does the Secretary of State think that that counts as less than six months?
If the hon. Gentleman sends me the details, I will of course examine the case and write to him, but I am surprised and disappointed that he did not take the opportunity to congratulate the NHS on bringing waiting times down to their lowest level since records began. I am really not prepared to take lectures on waiting times from the hon. Gentleman, who voted against the increased investment that we are making in the NHS.
I welcome the reductions in waiting times, and if there are cases in which individuals have struggled I am sure that my right hon. Friend will look into them; but will she also acknowledge that one of the consequences of increased throughput is the potential for superbugs? Is she aware of the campaign launched by the Loughborough Echo, aimed particularly at clostridium difficile and its consequences for my constituents? Will she try to ensure that it appears on death certificates in future, to make not just patients but hospital staff more aware of the problem?
We all share my hon. Friend’s concern about the increase in clostridium difficile—which is a particularly problematic hospital-acquired infection—in some hospitals, including hospitals in Leicester. That makes it all the more important for us not just to continue to shorten waiting times for operations but to ensure that patients are treated in the community, closer to their homes, when that is appropriate and clinically safe.
I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the reduction in six-month waiting times in Leicestershire, but may I remind her of information given by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), in a written answer on 8 November 2006? He reported that in the NHS as a whole, 87 per cent. of patients had been treated within six months in the year to last April. May I also remind the Secretary of State that in 1990, 17 years ago, the equivalent figure was 86 per cent.? Does she think that an increase of one percentage point over 17 years is a good return for the huge increase in investment that she mentioned earlier?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman began by congratulating the NHS, and I welcome his recognition that waiting times for elderly people needing hip replacements, for instance, were longer than 18 months when he was Secretary of State for Health. But of course we need to do more, which is exactly why we have promised that by the end of 2008 the maximum wait from GP referral to operating theatre will be just 18 weeks, but that for most people the wait will be much shorter. I hope that the Conservative party will support the NHS in making the further changes needed to achieve that dramatic improvement in care, and will congratulate the NHS as it achieves them.
I thank my right hon. Friend for increasing the budget of the primary care trust over the past 10 years. It doubled to £173 million last year. Does she, however, share my concern and that of my constituents, who, when they try to obtain appointments with GPs for referral purposes, are met with administrative delays and difficulties? Is she planning any guidance for local GPs on the way in which their front-line staff should deal with the public, so that when people ring to ask for an appointment they are given one and are therefore referred as quickly as possible?
My right hon. Friend is right. Because some general practices—although, I think, only a minority—do not have proper appointment systems, it can be very difficult for people to obtain appointments when they need them, whether on the same day or in advance if that is what they require. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend welcomes the fact that thanks to the target we have set, people no longer wait for weeks on end to obtain appointments. I believe that the patient survey which will begin this month, and which will be linked to GPs’ pay, will ensure that the minority of GPs who are not yet offering convenient appointments will do so in future.