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Statement on Health

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Brian Gibbons, Minister for Health and Social Services

Our twin-track approach continues to drive this administration’s health policy, focusing strongly on the underlying causes of demand for health services in Wales and improving the patient experience for those who fall ill.

As Wanless reminded us, we will never achieve a sustainable future for the NHS unless we persuade people to engage fully with their own health needs and circumstances. Health Challenge Wales, which has received strong support from many Assembly Members, is our major programme for securing that engagement.

I can report that the public awareness campaign that ran in February and March was a huge success. A total of 6,500 action packs were issued to members of the public, a rate which well outstrips that achieved in similar campaigns. Evaluation shows that awareness of Health Challenge Wales almost doubled over a four-month period to the end of March. We have created a new platform in the public mind from which we can build a critical mass and momentum for the campaign, and, with the help of all parties in the Assembly, I am confident that we can do that.

Alongside the public health agenda, the Assembly Government has acted to tackle waiting times in the health service. The figures published today show the astonishing success that has been achieved over the last year. At the end of March, there were no patients waiting for over eight months for cardiac surgery or angioplasty in Wales or for over six months for a cataract operation at a Welsh trust, and there were only 18 patients waiting more than four months—17 of whom were waiting at English trusts, which were unable to meet the Welsh target.

More generally, out-patient waits of more than 18 months fell by 99.5 per cent, which means that they were down from 6,100 to 31, and 15 of those were waiting for treatment outside Wales. In-patient waits of more than 18 months fell by 98.5 per cent, from 1,380 to 21, and nine of those had declined a second offer of treatment and were, therefore, not being kept waiting by the health service. In-patient waits of more than 12 months fell equally dramatically, falling by 90 per cent from 8,457 to 845. When account is taken of those declining second offers, only 108 people were kept waiting at the end of the year. This means that the number of patients waiting for over 12 months for in-patient treatment in Wales is at its lowest since March 1994 and is lower than the figures inherited from the previous Conservative Government.

These fantastic achievements are due to many factors, but the Assembly Government’s second-offer scheme has undoubtedly been a key driver in bringing about the change. I visited the second-offer commissioning team responsible for the scheme earlier this morning to congratulate it on the work that it has carried out on behalf of patients in the last year. The challenge that we have set the health service in Wales is to build on these achievements over the coming 12 months.

The maximum patient waits in Wales are currently 18 months for an out-patient appointment and 12 months for in-patient surgery. In 2005-06, we will reduce that further so that, at the end of March 2006, no-one will have waited more than 12 months for either a first out-patient appointment or in-patient or day-case surgery. I stress again that most patients in Wales wait nothing like that these maximum times. Seven out of 10 people on the March out-patient list had been waiting less than six months, not the maximum 18 months. Three quarters of those waiting for elective in-patient treatment had been waiting less than six months, not the 12 months maximum. The median wait for a hospital operation is 11 weeks, not 11 months.

Let me place these achievements in a wider context. When I became Minister for Health and Social Services, opposition parties queued up to tell me that the NHS in Wales was beyond repair. I rejected these self-serving assertions then, and, four months later, I reject them even more emphatically. In that period, I have announced a much-expanded capital programme, which will see spending rise to over £300 million on new and modernised buildings and equipment in the NHS in Wales. Published record staff levels show a rise of 32 per cent in NHS staff numbers since 1997. There are 10,727 more nurses, midwives and health visitors, 443 more hospital medical consultants since 1997, and 3,369 more scientific, therapeutic and technical staff since 1997. I have demonstrated the reductions in delayed transfers of care that the new money and new policy focus have produced. Since January 2004, delays have been reduced by 36 per cent in the number of patients and the total number of delays reduced by 45 per cent—the lowest figures since records began in April 2002.
Of course, more needs to be done, and I was able to announce yesterday that, with immediate effect, an additional £5 million will help modernise dental NHS contracts in Wales. This is in line with what dentists want, and, hopefully, it will strengthen NHS dentistry in Wales pending the new dental contract.

The Welsh health service now has a guaranteed four-year horizon over which to bring waiting times down progressively to a maximum of six months in total, from referral to treatment. It has the confidence of knowing that the money is there to provide the first-class facilities needed to support that reduction. It has the confidence of knowing that the staff will be there to provide the services needed, and it has the confidence of knowing that there is an Assembly Government in Wales determined to put an unrelenting focus on ending inequality and tackling the causes of ill health. The fundamentals are now in place to create a world-class health and social care system in Wales. I commend our record and our future plans to the Assembly.