The National Health Service is set to fall well short of its target of ensuring that no one waits more than 18 weeks from seeing a family doctor to completion of treatment, latest official figures suggest.

But while the figures point to waits for diagnostic tests being a key contributor to delays in treatment, private sector contracts originally designed to deliver 1.5m extra tests a year are still being held up by an ever lengthening review in the Department of Health of whether they should go ahead.

Negotiations on the contracts, initially worth about £200m a year, began more than two and a half years ago. Just two are operational. A review of the six remaining schemes – which would not start operation for some months, even if they were approved today – was meant to be completed by the end of August. But a health department spokesman said at the weekend that they were still under review.

Senior health department sources insist some of the remaining deals will be approved. But private sector suppliers are doubtful that many of them will be.

Waning enthusiasm for using the contracts to boost capacity and stimulate competition come as the latest “referral-to-treatment” figures show that the NHS is running behind schedule to hit a target of no patient waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment by the end of 2008.

The figures need treating with caution as the service can currently only count the total waiting time for about 80 per cent of patients.

But in January, when the figures were first collected, 47 per cent of patients completed their treatment within 18 weeks. By June that figure had risen to 54 per cent – a 7 percentage-point improvement in six months.

But with only 18 months to go, progress at the same rate would still leave 25 per cent of patients waiting more than 18 weeks.

In June, 25,000 of the patients treated had waited more than a year, and almost 75,000 more than six months.

Anthony Harrison, an academic at the King’s Fund think-tank who is following the 18-week target, said: “With previous targets to cut waits for surgery there has always been an acceleration towards the end, with the figures improving faster as the deadline nears.”

“But this target is different. It cannot be achieved just by doing more of the same – more operations or more outpatient appointments. It requires changes to the way services are provided so that, for example, scans and tests can be performed and a decision made on treatment on the same day. That is organisationally much more difficult to achieve.”

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Johnson pulls out of health event

Alan Johnson, health secretary, has pulled out of giving the opening address to an inaugural Independent Healthcare Convention next week at which many of the key private sector suppliers to the NHS will be present.

Patricia Hewitt, his predecessor, had accepted the invitation in what was seen as a symbol of the government’s commitment to using the private sector to improve NHS services.

Mr Johnson, however, will not be there and the conference organisers say they have been told that his junior ministers are also “too busy” to speak. Chan Wheeler, a civil servant and the health department’s new commercial director, is being sent in his place.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said the invitation had not been on a speech programme that the health secretary was presented with on his appointment and “absolutely no snub is intended”.

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