05/09/2017 16:55 BST | Updated 05/09/2017 19:22 BST

The Government Has Quietly Shelved NHS 18-Week Waiting Time Target

Labour peer says ministers may have acted unlawfully.

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The government has quietly shelved 18-week NHS waiting times for elective surgery, according to a Labour peer.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath said he believes ministers may have acted unlawfully by removing the target from the NHS Regulations for 2017, without making a public statement or informing Parliament. 

One of three key targets, along with A&E waiting times and cancer treatment referrals, the NHS was previously required to ensure 92% of patients waiting for non-urgent surgery were treated within 18 weeks.  The service has repeatedly missed all three key targets in recent years.

The Lords will debate the issue on Wednesday, as part of a motion put forward by Lord Hunt which says failure to meet this target is a breach of the rights of patients outlined in the NHS Constitution.

He told HuffPost UK: “For me, the three key targets - this one, four-hour A&E waiting times and cancer treatment referrals within 62 days act as a barometer for the general health of the NHS.

“Given the service has repeatedly failed to meet these targets, it is obviously not performing as it should be.

″Elective surgery cannot just be dismissed as ‘non-urgent’ and therefore unimportant - if you are waiting for a hip replacement or a knee replacement, that has a huge effect on your life and is very urgent.

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Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has previously been accused of "watering down" NHS targets.

“We also know that for people waiting for such treatment, the longer they have to wait, the worse their condition can become - which means extra costs and pressure on the NHS in the long-term.”

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt was previously accused of “watering down” other key targets, including A&E waiting times, by suggesting they should only apply to “urgent” cases. 

Experts have warned the health service is facing its “worst winter in history” amid increasing pressures and huge budget cuts.

Lord Hunt added: ”We were warned in the NHS five-year progress report back in March that patients could expect longer waiting times for elective surgery, but that it would be offset by improved care in other areas.

″But airbrushing out this target seems to indicate the government has given up the ghost on this.  I am not confident that we will see any of the key targets met again.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said the government remained committed to the target.

“The standard remains a patient right, embedded in the NHS Constitution and underpinned by legislation.  We have no plans to change this,” they added.

“The NHS continues to treat more than nine out of ten patients waiting for planned care within 18 weeks, with the average wait for an operation remaining just 10.3 weeks.”