A LEADING North-East consultant claimed last night that covering up of waiting list figures was "widespread".

Dr Bill Ryder's comments came as a National Audit Office report found that nine NHS health trusts across the country had inappropriately adjusted their figures.

Under pressure to meet tough waiting time targets, figures were manipulated deliberately or incorrect procedures followed, often by junior staff.

Last night, Dr Ryder, chairman of the northern region consultants and specialists committee, said: "Health managers are under immense pressure to deliver the goods in terms of numbers, and there does tend to be creative accounting in some areas to try and hide the truth."

Dr Ryder, a consultant anaesthetist at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead, said he had seen a memo sent out by an unnamed North-East trust which asked surgeons not to cancel operations on the day they had been scheduled to take place.

This was because same day cancellations must be reported to the Department of Health for use in performance data.

The audit office report found 6,000 patient records had been affected at the nine trusts identified. None of the trusts were in the North-East.

It called for more checks to be made and for clear guidance to be issued by the Department of Health on actions to be followed by trusts.

Edna Irwin, 69, from Darlington, County Durham, has been waiting almost two years for a heart bypass operation.

She was initially told by South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust she was being placed on the surgeon's waiting list in July 2000.

Mrs Irwin is now expected to undergo her operation at the private BUPA Hospital in Washington early next year.

John Chisholm, director of performance management at the South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "We do apologise to people who have to wait for operations and we are trying to reduce our waiting lists."