Andrew Lansley has been accused of U-turning on NHS targets after he announced a clamp down on "hidden waiting lists" in the NHS. The government says the move will help patients who have to wait over four months for treatment.
Andrew Lansley said on Thursday that there was concern there was no incentive for hospitals to treat patients who had been waiting for longer than the current 18-week target and he was considering bringing in contracts with hospitals.
His words came shortly before the government announced a 43% increase in patients who missed the 18 week target - amounting to an extra 9,000 patients in September 2011.
"If we bring it into this system of actually making sure that patients’ interests are part of the contractual arrangements with hospitals, in the same way at the moment as there is a contractual requirement to treat patients within 18 weeks and the operational standard is that 90% of patients should be seen and treated within 18 weeks if they are admitted to hospital, and 95% if they are not", the health secretary told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Up to a quarter of a million people are said to be waiting over 18 weeks for non-urgent treatment.
Labour believe the government is to return to a targets culture, one which coalition ministers dropped on entering government.
Andy Burnham said the move was a "clear admission of failure". The shadow health secretary said: "No amount of desperate spin from the Government today can hide the fact that they have lost control of NHS waiting lists.
"Since David Cameron became Prime Minister, there has been a huge increase in the number of patients who have had to wait longer than 18 weeks for treatment. This is exactly what we warned would happen when they relaxed Labour's targets.
"Today's dramatic conversion by the Government to the importance of NHS targets comes far too late for the thousands of people who have been left waiting for treatment in pain and discomfort.
"Cameron promised to keep waiting times low and only last month insisted that average waits were going down. Today's figures show the opposite and once again reveal our Prime Minister to be totally out of touch with ordinary people.
"Labour left waiting times at an historic low, but Lansley has thrown all this away. Sadly, things will get even worse if he succeeds in abolishing Labour's cap on the amount of private work hospitals can do, pushing NHS patients further back in the queue.
"Day by day, the evidence is mounting that the NHS is slipping backwards and into the danger zone. The NHS is distracted by a controversial re-organisation and patients are paying the price with longer waits and a return of the postcode lottery. Cameron must listen to patients and staff, put the NHS first and drop his dangerous."
David Cameron has previously pledged to keep to the 18 week target, saying: "I refuse to go back to the days when people had to wait for hours on end to be seen in A&E, or months and months to have surgery. So let me be absolutely clear: we won't."