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Health Secretary pledges to be patient ‘champion’ over GP access

Health Secretary Therese Coffey (James Manning/PA)
Health Secretary Therese Coffey (James Manning/PA)

Patients will be able to get a non-urgent GP appointment within two weeks and a same-day urgent slot under new plans unveiled by the Health Secretary.

Therese Coffey has pledged to use data so that patients can see how well their GP practice performs compared to others as pressure mounts on family doctors over appointments.

Under the plans, which will be unveiled in Parliament at lunchtime, Ms Coffey is expected to set out how a range of workers – such as pharmacists, GP assistants and advanced nurse practitioners – will be used to ease the burden on GPs.

She will say she wants to free up GP time by bringing in other staff as well as sharing “best practice” across surgeries.

Criticising the move, the Royal College of GPs said it had not been consulted on the plans while league tables will not “improve access or standards of care”.

The King’s Fund said GPs were struggling with the current demand and “setting new expectations and targets will not suddenly increase the capacity in general practice”.

Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said: “The truth is that we are chronically short of GPs, with the number of GPs per person in England falling year after year.

“Targets don’t create any more doctors.”

Later in Parliament, Ms Coffey will use her Our Plan for Patients to set out how the 8am scramble for appointments could be eased as the NHS rolls out new telephone systems.

The systems, already used by some surgeries, will mean that patients are not automatically cut off if there is no-one available to take their call.

Patients will be told their place in the queue and maybe asked a few simple questions or offered information about practice opening times while waiting.

NHS Digital figures show that 15% – 3.9 million – of the 25.9 million GP appointments made in England in August occurred at least two weeks after the appointment was made.

Government officials have estimated 1.2 million appointments each year can be handled by other surgery staff.

GP assistants carry out administrative tasks and sometimes they can carry out basic clinical duties, while advanced nurse practitioners are registered nurses with extra qualifications who can help treat patients.

Pharmacists will be given new responsibilities to manage and supply more prescriptions such as contraception, freeing up a further two million appointments every year.

Ms Coffey told BBC Breakfast on Thursday her plan was not about being “overly prescriptive … from Whitehall about exactly how a GP will run their practice, but to be able to help, whether that’s about some technology that will free up phone lines, whether it’ll be about how practices can use the NHS app with their patients in order to book appointments.

“There’s a variety of ways that we want to remove some of the burdens at the moment that exist in GP practices, but also to free up appointments for GPs to see their patients.”

Asked if GPs were not doing their best at the moment, she said more than half of appointments were on the same day.

She added: “I think we see some great experiences for patients. I’m also conscious that we hear regularly from patients how frustrated they are that they cannot get an appointment with their GP.”

Ms Coffey was asked on LBC Radio if her new pledges meant patients should see a GP face to face, or whether a telephone or video consultation would do.

“I think that’s open to the relationship between the GP and the patient,” she said.

“I know that, throughout the pandemic, there’s been a variety of ways that people have interacted with seeing their GP. I’m not going to be overly prescriptive.

“I know that some people enjoy just having a phone call, but may need to go in and see the doctor, I know that other patients are very keen in that regard.”

Asked whether GPs who underperformed would face sanctions, she said: “Dare I say it … one of the points about also opening up and publishing data by practice is it may give some patients the opportunity to choose to use a different GP and to make that change as well.”

On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, the Health Secretary also pledged to look at bed-blocking in the NHS, saying there were thousands of people “in hospitals who don’t need that clinical attention and would be better cared for outside of a hospital”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ms Coffey said the number of GPs was “pretty stable” when compared to the number at the last election, but the Government was “still working on the broader workforce plan”.

The Government has previously admitted it is not on track to meet its target of 6,000 more GPs by 2024, with former health secretary Sajid Javid telling MPs he was not “going to pretend that we’re on track when we are clearly not”.

In her speech to Parliament later, Ms Coffey is expected to try to rally the NHS army of volunteers who provided support during the Covid-19 pandemic to support the NHS and social care sectors.

“I will put a laser-like focus on the needs of patients, making their priorities my priorities and being a champion for them on the issues that affect them most,” she is expected to say.

Amanda Pritchard, NHS England chief executive, said it would work with the Government to implement the plans.

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said it was a “shame” its members on the frontline had not been consulted on the plans.

“Lumbering a struggling service with more expectations, without a plan as to how to deliver them, will only serve to add to the intense workload and workforce pressures GPs and our teams are facing, whilst having minimal impact on the care our patients receive.

“Whilst we support transparency we strongly caution against creation of ‘league tables’, which we know from international research evidence do not work in improving access to or standards of care.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said patients were guaranteed a GP appointment within 48 hours under Labour but this was scrapped by the Conservatives.