From April 1 this year patients will be given new legal rights to maximum waiting times after a consultation revealed huge public support for the move, health secretary Andy Burnham has announced.

The new rights, which are to be added to the NHS Constitution, mean that patients can expect to start treatment by a consultant within 18 weeks of being referred by their family doctor and to be seen by a specialist within two if a GP suspects cancer.

And, in a move to help enshrine the new rights into NHS practice, the NHS will be legally obliged to pick up the tab from sending patients to private providers should it fail to meet these deadlines.

Almost 90% of people responding to the Department of Health’s consultation on the proposals for new legal rights said they were in favour of the plans, under which from April 2012 patients will also have the right to an NHS Health Check every five years to assess their risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease, in order to facilitate earlier diagnosis and thereby reduce the incidence of such illnesses and their strain on health services.

“Patients and the public have shown their overwhelming support for locking in the progress that the NHS has made – by turning targets into rights, we are giving patients the power to demand the services they are entitled to,” Burnham said.

But there are also concerns over the move. When the proposals were first announced, Tim Winn, Partner in the healthcare team at law firm Mills & Reeve, said the message to NHS providers to “hit your referral-to-treatment targets or you will lose business,” will “ratchet up the pressure that already exists with patient choice". And Mark Porter, Chairman of the British Medical Association's Consultants Committee, said “many doctors remain frustrated by examples of political targets being prioritised over the needs of individual patients. If one group of patients gains a legal right by virtue of how long they have waited, there is a risk that others with more serious conditions will wait longer”.

There was, however, also strong public support for the next wave of rights being considered by the government, such as evening and weekend access to GPs, access to NHS dentistry, and the right to key diagnostic tests cancer within one week of seeing a GP. Furthermore, the DH said it will work with Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chief executive of Marie Curie Cancer Care, to develop a legal entitlement for patients to die at home, more detailed proposals for which will be laid out in the next Parliament.