Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP's committee, has sent a strong warning to the incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown that the flagship target of treating patients on the National Health Service within 18 weeks by the end of 2008 will fail unless certain obstacles are dealt with first.

Figures just released by the Department of Health show that the number of patients currently receiving treatment within the 18-week timeframe has risen to 48%, a year and a half ahead of schedule.

But, in his keynote speech today to the 2007 Local Medical Committees Conference in London, Dr Meldrum said: “Getting the other 52% of patients treated within 18 weeks is going to be much harder work - it’s always the easier ones first. All doctors want to see this become a reality for all patients.”

“We want to see it work,” he stressed, but warned of “wreckage” that could “sink the ship - referral management centres that ration healthcare, choose and book that doesn’t work, practice-based commissioning blocked at every turn, the junior doctor training fiasco and, affecting everything, the grinding year-on-year cuts that prevent investing to improve.”

A ‘difficult’ year

Dr Meldrum went on to condemn the substantial changes the NHS has had to cope with over the last 12 months, and pointed out that significant challenges still lie ahead. “All these changes have not been good news for the Secretary of State, not good news for doctors and they don’t seem to be good news for patients. And to add to the litany of problems we have the extreme measures that many PCTs have taken to try to save their own necks and [Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt’s] job. Delayed operations and outpatient appointments, redundancies amongst staff, ward closures and the slashing of training budgets. No wonder so many doctors and patients alike have lost confidence in this government’s disastrous management of the NHS,” he argued.

“So many of these changes are not changes for the better. The avalanches of unnecessary bureaucracy, the dogma-driven rush to privatise the NHS, the corruptive aspects of the internal market - no wonder there is anger and despair. But the values that we hold dear, that are the essence of general practice, remain constant and unchanging.”

And in a frank warning to the chancellor, he said: “Doctors are prepared to crew your flagship Gordon - but only if you work with us, get the minesweepers out and remove the obstacles in our way.”