Gipsies and travellers should be given priority in NHS hospitals and GP surgeries, doctors have been told.
They will be fast-tracked for doctors, nurses and even some dentist appointments above all other patients.
GPs have also been told to see any travellers who simply walk in without an appointment, even if all consultation times for the day are full.
They will also be given longer consultations than other patients. Five or ten minutes is the average but travellers will be given 20 minutes and allowed to bring relatives into the consulting rooms.
Staff will be given ‘mandatory cultural awareness’ training so they can fully understand what it is like to be a traveller or gipsy.
It raises the prospect that other patients will suffer worse healthcare and have to wait even longer to see their GP.
The guidelines have been introduced because, under race laws, gipsies and travellers are defined as minority ethnic groups and the NHS is obliged to consider their special needs and circumstances.
Yet no special treatment is promised for other groups such as those from the Asian sub-continent or Africa.
The guidance also encourages Primary Care Trusts to establish new services for travellers if none exist, and to designate a senior manager to be a named lead for ‘Gipsy and Traveller Health’.
The rules form part of the Primary Care Service Framework, drawn up by the NHS Primary Care Commissioning–an advisory service for local health trusts–to help all PCTs understand the Department of Health’s policy.
It will go on trial for between three and five years, Although PCTs do not necessarily have to follow the guidelines, they could be breaking human rights law and the Race Relations Act of 2000 if they do not.
Groups covered by the framework include Scottish gipsy travellers, Welsh gipsies, bargees, circus and fairground showmen and new travellers.
Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley said: ‘No one should get priority treatment in the NHS apart from our Armed Forces, to whom we owe a special debt of gratitude.
‘Decisions about who should be treated first should be based on a patient’s medical needs, not their ethnic group.
‘NHS managers need to get off doctors’ and nurses’ backs and start letting them get on with what they do best–looking after sick people.
‘Such a policy of fast-tracking one section of society over another goes against the founding principles of the NHS.
Labour’s botched handling of the new GP contracts and obsession with a tick-box target culture in the NHS mean many people find it difficult to get a GP appointment quickly.
‘Families will feel aggrieved that it will now be even harder.’
Mark Wallace, from the Tax-Payers’ Alliance, said: ‘This kind of special treatment is totally uncalled-for and utterly unjustified.
‘The NHS is meant to treat people equally so matter who they are or whatever their race.
‘The only priority should be how ill someone is, not their politically-correct concerns.
‘This will be incredibly frustrating for people who have paid tax all their lives to fund the NHS and are left struggling to get a doctor’s appointment and prompt treatment. H
‘Hardworking people will be outraged at this double standard.’
The NHS estimates there are 120,000 to 300,000 gipsies and travellers in the UK but there are no firm numbers as the census does not include them as a category.
Traveller spokesman Gratton Puxon, from the illegal camp at Crays Hill in Essex, welcomed the initiative.
He said: ‘The problem stems from years ago when there was simply no access to healthcare, but things have greatly improved. Health workers visit the site quite regularly if people have chronic problems.’
The Department of Health said: ‘We are aware that gipsies and travellers have experienced tremendous difficulties in accessing primary care.
‘Partly as a result, community members experience the worst health inequalities of any disadvantaged group.
‘The framework suggests fast-tracking for two reasons. First, as a matter of urgency, inroads need to be made into the health problems of gipsies and travellers.
‘Second, if mobile community members are not seen quickly, the opportunity could be lost as they move on or are moved on. This should not be to the detriment of service provision to the settled community.’