WELSH Secretary Peter Hain has ordered the Assembly Government to adopt English health policies amid fears the dire state of the nation's health service will cost Labour seats in the looming general election.
The day after the Western Mail revealed health was the most important single issue influencing how people will vote, it emerged that the under-pressure Assembly Government has agreed to a significant shift in its health care strategy.
First Minister Rhodri Morgan, who famously declared there would be "clear red water" between Wales and Westminster, will now have to toe the line with English-style independent diagnostic and treatment centres.
And talks are ongoing over a waiting time target to mirror that offered by Tony Blair in England.
The Tories last night accused Labour of "blind panic" and insisted the policy shift would come too late to convince long-suffering patients. But the move was welcomed by Welsh Labour MPs who will be defending marginal seats in the expected May poll.
An announcement will be made ahead of Welsh Labour's pre-election Spring Conference, starting in Swansea on March 17, and follows weeks of heated negotiations between Cardiff Bay and Westminster.
Breaking point came last month when the Prime Minister announced a third-term pledge that no English patient would wait more than 18 weeks for treatment by 2008. Even though health is a devolved matter, the promise left Welsh Labour exposed and it was deemed untenable for its parliamentary candidates to campaign empty handed.
The best Welsh patients can currently hope for is a maximum 104-week wait by 2006, then a bed in a private or English hospital is promised under the Second Offer Guarantee. It is thought the Welsh target will be close to England's 18-week mark but could take until the end of a third Assembly term, 2011, to achieve.
Walk-in clinics will be used in cities like Swansea, Cardiff and Newport to ease the pressure on overstretched accident and emergency services.
And while Wales already has diagnostic and treatment centres within the NHS, the idea of privately-run DTCs will be now be imported. Credited with driving down waiting times, England's 25 independent centres perform an extra 25,000 operations a year.
It is hoped the Assembly Government's shift will come in time to shore up Labour's support in under-siege constituencies.
Both at-risk Cardiff Central MP Jon Owen Jones and Clwyd West MP Gareth Thomas have publicly urged Assembly Ministers to learn from England.
Mr Owen Jones said, "I am delighted if this is the case. Treatment centres are the single most important reason why waiting times have dropped so rapidly in England - there is an obvious lesson to learn from this.
"What matters is what works, not what people are ideologically comfortable with."
Signs of strain between the Cardiff and Westminster Governments emerged during last month's Welsh Questions when the Welsh Secretary suggested England might have the solutions to Wales' waiting list dilemmas.
Mr Hain told the Western Mail this week, "I have made it clear that parity of treatment has got to be a fundamental principle of Labour's forward policy on health."
The sacking of Health Minister Jane Hutt was not influenced by Westminster but her successor Brian Gibbons has proved more open-minded to a new approach.
Conservative Assembly health spokesman Jonathan Morgan, fighting to take Cardiff North, said the UK Government had a right to intervene because it was bankrolling Wales' health-care system and needed to ensure value for money on behalf of British taxpayers.
But he added, "The timing of this is incredible - eight or nine weeks before a general election.
"This has less to do with improving the health service in Wales and more to do with saving marginal seats, but Labour is too late.
"This should have been done when waiting lists virtually doubled under [former Health Minister] Jane Hutt.
"The Assembly Government has failed to act for six years and what we see now is blind panic but the public are not stupid."
An Assembly Government spokesman said, "The First Minister has said that waiting times in Wales are coming down fast, that we are reducing waiting time targets again next year and this is a trajectory which the Assembly Government intends to see continue."
An aide to Rhodri Morgan said a 2008 target would be announced within a fortnight.
Although critics will be quick to remind voters of the Assembly Government's 1999 promise to cut waiting times to six months, a pledge which Labour failed to meet and subsequently scrapped, there is no doubt the announcement will help Labour candidates.
One said, "The Assembly Government has been under sustained pressure and criticism from all quarters for two or three years. Its position is untenable and there had to be some sort of step change."
Another said it would be "perverse" if the Labour administration was planning to change course but failed to signal that shift until after the general election.