A Government plan to tackle hidden NHS waiting lists has been delayed - just two months after being announced by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.
Mr Lansley said in November that hospitals would face a clampdown from this year on the number of people languishing on waiting lists for treatment. But according to the Department of Health, although hospitals are expected to make progress towards that goal, penalties will not now be introduced until 2013/14.
Under NHS rules, patients should be treated within 18 weeks of being referred by their GP, but when that deadline is breached there is often no incentive for hospitals to see them. To tackle this, NHS managers were told in November they had to reduce the number of long waiters from this year - and by about 50,000 by April.
However, according to the Department of Health, penalties will now only be introduced "once progress has been made on validating the backlog data and the NHS has had time to adjust to working to the new standard."
Data suggests there are around 250,000 people waiting longer than 18 weeks to be treated and thousands have waited for more than a year. The new delay, uncovered by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), was condemned by patient groups.
HSJ columnist and waiting list consultant Rob Findlay said delaying the measure "fundamentally undermines the government's stated intention to reduce the number of patients 'forgotten' on English waiting lists."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "We want to reduce the number of patients on hidden waiting lists to help ensure everyone gets access to the treatment they need. Work on this has already started and we expect organisations to reduce their backlog and long waits whilst this is ongoing."
Patients Association chief executive Katherine Murphy said: "The Department of Health said they would tackle the issue yet instead of taking action they have just stuck to the same targets which have not helped these forgotten patients."
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "We are losing count of the Government's broken promises on health, but this seems to be the quickest on record. Only six weeks after making this promise the Health Secretary has further undermined the already fragile confidence in his ability to run the NHS.
"One of his first acts in office was to relax Labour's waiting time standards. We warned him that patients would pay the price and this is exactly what has happened."