» Wednesday, June 23, 2004

PM’s Speech/Public Services

Asked if the Prime Minister had been indicating in his speech today that the Government was intending to introduce further measures to tackle anti-social behaviour, the PMOS said it was clear that existing powers had been broadly welcomed at a local level. However, it was an issue which was being kept under constant review, as you would expect.

Asked if the Prime Minister was keen to look into the case of the Leader of the Opposition’s constituent who reportedly had had to wait twenty months to receive radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer, the PMOS said that we would obviously be anxious to look into any such case. As he understood it, the local health authority had expressed some scepticism about any patient having to wait twenty months for radiotherapy. However, he was not a spokesman for them. He pointed out that, in general terms, over 98% of patients with suspected breast cancer who had been urgently referred to a consultant by their GP were now seen within two weeks. That figure had been 72% in 1997. He also pointed out that the number of radiographers had increased by 18% since 1997 and the number of training places at universities had more than doubled. By the end of this year, we would have 50% more linear accelerators in the NHS. That said, the Government accepted that waiting times for radiotherapy were still too long. Equally, however, it was important for people to recognise that we were trying to make up for the under-investment of the past. Asked if these details had emerged because the Prime Minister had asked to see details of the case, the PMOS said no. The information had come from the local health authority who had been responding to what had been said today.

Put to him that radiographers’ success in picking up problems more quickly would actually cause a logjam further down the road when it came to receiving treatment, the PMOS said that one of the advantages of picking up problems more quickly was to have a healthier population in the longer term. It would also mean that people would receive treatment for their complaints at an earlier stage, which could only be good thing. However, in order for that to happen, the initial backlog had to be worked through and that was one of the challenges we were facing.

Asked to explain the term ‘personalised services’, the PMOS said that in education for example, it meant increasing the number of academies that specialised in particular subjects which would allow individuals to pursue their education in a way which suited their particular skills. One of the fundamental principles of this issue was the question of choice. For example, as John Reid would set out tomorrow, people would be able to choose whether to wait to have an operation at their local hospital or go to another one if the procedure could be done sooner. The Government believed that real choice in our public services – whether education or health – could only be offered if capacity was increased, and that was precisely what we were continuing to try to do. Asked if the ability to book appointments electronically was part of the commitment to patient choice, the PMOS said that John Reid would set out further details tomorrow. The Government believed it was important to provide people with a realistic assessment of how long they were likely to have to wait, not just from the time they joined the queue but from the time they went to their GP for an initial diagnosis. That was only possible if the capacity existed to meet those kinds of demands.

Questioned further about what was meant by patient choice in terms of receiving treatment at different hospitals, the PMOS said that it was about giving people a choice within the NHS as a whole. It was important to recognise that different people had different preferences and would therefore make different decisions. The whole point was that people would not have to stick with their local hospital if it was unable to meet their particular needs at a particular time.

Asked what proportion of patients were expected to look further afield for treatment, the PMOS referred journalists to the Department of Health for specific information and statistics. He underlined that the Government was absolutely clear that there was demand for such a system and believed that it was also a good way to deal with capacity issues in different parts of the country.

Asked to explain how allowing people a choice of four hospitals in trials for elective surgery had brought down waiting times in those pilots areas as the Prime Minister had stated in his speech, the PMOS said that this was because we were both increasing capacity and making better use of existing capacity throughout the system, not just in one particular hospital. In terms of cancer, for example, over 1,100 items of the most modern equipment to diagnose and treat cancer had been delivered since April 2000 and 1,085 extra cancer consultants had been appointed since 1997. That had helped the process of reducing waiting times. However, there was clearly more work to do, as John Reid would acknowledge tomorrow.

Asked what the average waiting time was for breast cancer, the PMOS said the latest figures he had showed that there was a maximum waiting time of fourteen weeks for patients whose clinical priority had been assessed as clinically safe to allow this length of waiting. Put to him that the Leader of the Opposition’s constituent had had to wait for twenty months for radiotherapy, the PMOS advised journalists to speak to Kent and Medway health authority because they appeared to be questioning the claim.

Briefing took place at 15:45 | Search for related news

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