Friday, 22 December, 2000, 14:41 GMT
Further delays to advice on whether multiple sclerosis drugs should be available on the NHS has been condemned as "breathtaking bungling".
It will now be several months before the advice will be published after the body assessing beta-interferon and glatiramer acetate decided it needed more research before making its mind up.
Campaigners had hoped for a decision in January.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) has already been looking at existing evidence of effectiveness and cost for almost a year, and the further delay has enraged pressure groups.
Peter Cardy, the chief executive of the MS Society, said: "It is breathtaking bungling when, after nearly a year of appraisal, people with MS now have to wait until next autumn to know whether they can receive on the NHS treatments which could change their lives.
"People who by then may have become too disabled to benefit from the drugs will find it impossible to understand why Nice has only now decided to look at their cost-effectiveness in a different way.
"Health Secretary Alan Milburn must waste no time in sorting Nice's ineptitude out.
"He can start by demanding an apology to people with MS for the cynical way it has made this announcement at the very last moment before the Christmas holidays."
Both drugs are thought to increase the time between disabling MS attacks in patients who have the relapsing-remitting form of the disease, and slow their overall decline.
However, as both cost several thousand pounds per year of treatment, some doctors argue that the money would be better spent elsewhere.
Announcing the extra delay, the chief executive of Nice Andrew Dillon said: "Detailed examination has raised a number of issues that the institute's Appraisal Committee, using the information available, has been unable to resolve.
"The evidence relating to the cost effectiveness of these medicines is critically important in this appraisal.
"The institute has therefore decided to commission further economic modelling."
While the exact time needed for the research is unclear, when combined with the need to allow all interested parties time to examine the findings, and for final discussions to take place, a final decision is unlikely to emerge before many more months have passed.
It is certain that no decision can be taken before July 2001.
The length of time taken to appraise the drugs has already cast a shadow over the government's pledge to get rid of so-called postcode prescribing.
Shadow health secretary Liam Fox said: "This is a hammer blow to MS patients and will undoubtedly devastate their hopes just before Christmas.
"However, worst of all, by delaying to July, it is increasingly clear that the Government wants to avoid a decision until after the general election."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow, vice-chairman of the all-party Parliamentary MS group, said: "The reasoning behind this decision is invalid.
"Nice have not bothered to look at the wealth of existing evidence about the effectiveness of beta interferon."
He added: "It is underhand to sneak this out just before Christmas. Nice's decision leaves thousands of MS sufferers in limbo.
"This is a cowardly
excuse by ministers desperate to put off a difficult decision until after
the general election."
© The Canadian