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Friday, January 14, 2005

Poison chalice?

The reasons behind Rhodri Morgan's reshuffle grow more and more opaque. At first glance it would seem that the publication of a damning National Audit Office report into the Welsh NHS today and an attempt to blunt its criticisms were the main driving force behind his decision to move Jane Hutt. However, this is denied by all and sundry.

The investigation into waiting times reveals failings in almost every aspect of the health service, which have left some patients waiting more than four years for treatment. It found disturbing inadequacies in Welsh Assembly Government health policy to manage and eradicate scandalously long waits.

As the Western Mail says the report concludes that:

More than 100 people in Wales have been waiting more than four years for an outpatient appointment. The same number have been waiting the same length of time for inpatient treatment;

Wales spends more on health per head of population than England but people in Wales have to wait significantly longer for elective health treatment;

The rate of improvement in Wales has been slow and targets have generally remained static - only Northern Ireland has longer waiting time targets;

Differences in waiting times have been exacerbated by work in England and Scotland to reduce waiting times further;

Expensive waiting list initiatives have failed to tackle the root causes of long waiting times;
Instead of imposing tough sanctions on NHS trusts that fail to meet waiting list targets, the Welsh Assembly Government has rewarded failure.

And yet the First Minister has now claimed that he was only given a briefing on the contents of the report yesterday even though Assembly Government officials were given a draft of the report "three to four months ago" and NHS Wales director Ann Lloyd referred to it at the Welsh NHS Confederation conference at Llandudno last November.

In an interview on Radio Wales this morning, the new Health Minister, Brian Gibbons, tells us that not only did he see the report for the first time yesterday but that he did not know of its existence prior to his appointment to the Cabinet. He then embarked on a rambling discourse in which he stated firstly, that he would not be implementing the recommendations of the report or changing policy and then secondly, that he will be keeping it at his elbow as a working manual for the first part of his tenure.

Frankly, I have problems believing any of this spin, even if it is confused and incoherent. By sacking Jane Hutt when he did, the First Minister has bought some time for his government and has given it a chance to ride out the storm over an independent report that has ripped his flagship policies to shreds. I find it incredible that he did not know what to expect from this publication or that he did not take it into account in his reshuffle.

What he must do now is to implement the report's recommendations. It is no good pretending that a change of Minister does not presage a change in direction. If it does not then he and his government will have let the people of Wales down and Labour will pay the price at the General Election.

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