Hospital waiting lists could disappear completely under radical new Conservative plans to reform the NHS

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Hospital waiting lists could disappear completely under radical new Conservative plans to reform the NHS and give patients the Right to Choose where to be treated.

Launching the party's health policy, Opposition Leader Michael Howard said his aim was to match standards set in other advanced countries where patients do not have to wait for operations.

"Our approach will mean that, at last, we can make waiting lists in this country a thing of the past. Waiting lists don't exist in countries like France and Sweden. Waiting lists are a British disease, and the Right to Choose is the cure," he declared.

As the battle lines are drawn for the next general election, and the political focus switches to Britain's front line public services, the Opposition Leader made it clear that a new Conservative administration would not order the scrapping of waiting list - but would achieve the big breakthrough for patients by reforming the system under which the NHS operates.

The Right to Choose would give patients the ability to select the hospital with the shortest waiting time for an operation - increasing flexibility, boosting efficiency, and reducing waiting times for patients. And by scrapping red tape and freeing up health professionals to respond to clinical rather than bureaucratic priorities, and by expanding capacity by offering independent hospitals the "right to supply" to the NHS, waiting times would also be dramatically slashed back.

Pledging to scrap Labour's centralised controls and obsession with NHS targets, and give real freedom to doctors and nurses, and to introduce the new Right to Choose, Mr Howard said: "In our NHS today we rely more than ever on the hard work of doctors, nurses and consultants. They perform miracles every hour of the day. But everybody knows that the NHS is not as good as it could be. That's not their fault. It's the fault of the system. So the NHS has to change."

With almost a million people still waiting for operations, with thousands of others forced to pay for private operations; with deaths from hospital superbugs doubled, and with administration costs escalating by £2 billion as three new managers are appointed for every doctor, he said it was clear that Labour approach had failed.

And Mr Howard said: "Our policy, the Right to Choose, will transform our NHS. The Right to Choose is intrinsic to human dignity. It goes with the grain of human nature and the way our society works today. People want to make their own choices. They like to have control over the services they use. Our policy will eradicate the inequalities that exist in our two-tier Health Service, where the rich get what they pay for and the poor have to shut up and take what they are given."

He added: "The Right to Choose will mean that, for the first time ever, patients will be able to choose the hospital that suits their particular needs best, rather than having to choose the hospital that suits the Government best. It will mean that hospitals will have the freedom to determine their own future, to hire the people they want and to increase capacity to meet demand. The Right to Choose will give people access to private healthcare - completely free of charge - if that is where they want to be treated and there is no extra cost to the taxpayer. We want the private and public sectors to work together to help the NHS."

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