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Government accused of NHS bookings backtrack

Parliamentary correspondent
Health secretary Alan Milburn has been accused of backtracking on a key election manifesto pledge on the NHS which guaranteed a computer-booked hospital appointment for every patient at a time of their choosing.

The confusion over government policy centres on an earlier pledge it made which said that patients would be able to book hospital appointments through their GPs' computer systems by 2005.

Last week, however, the Department of Health (DoH) appeared to water down the commitment to an "intention".

Liberal Democrat health spokesman and former hospital doctor Evan Harris said this was just the latest "downgrading'' of a challenging target by the Government.

Labour's general election manifesto last year promised, "By the end of 2005 every hospital appointment will be booked for the convenience of the patient, making it easier for patients and their GPs to choose the hospital and consultant that best suits their needs."

However, a press release quietly issued by the DoH last week said that the commitment was only an "intention".

"Ultimately the intention is that by 2005 all patients will be able to book a convenient time and place for their treatment at the point they are referred to a hospital by their GPs," it said.

But Harris insisted that the Government was in retreat over the policy. "This is not the first time this has happened.

"Every time the Government has set a challenging target for NHS improvement, it has later downgraded it," he said.

The Government's commitment to streamline the electronic booking of hospital appointments is part of a wider investment in IT for the NHS.

In 1999, Tony Blair ordered a £20m boost to "revolutionise" the NHS with on-the-spot appointments for hospital consultants and operations which, it was claimed, could save the taxpayer £250m a year.

He said the money would pay for another 60 computerised projects, and that by 2001 it would allow more than two million people to have appointments made and confirmed by their GPs before they left the surgery.

But the DoH has refused to say whether the two million figure was reached last year. A spokesman said they were on course to achieve five million booked appointments by the end of March this year, although he could not say what the current number stood at.

The spokesman described the 2005 computer booking pledge as a "commitment".

"We are confident that we can achieve this, and the target of five million appointments this year is part of that," he said.

The health service is at the forefront of Blair's efforts to modernise government. Early last year the Government announced an £851m boost for NHS IT funding.

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