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What the Tories think about general practice matters like never before

If the Conservatives want to be treated as the Government in waiting, their health policy must be clear and consistent

By Richard Hoey

If the Conservatives want to be treated as the Government in waiting, their health policy must be clear and consistent

There was a time, back in the early Labour years when Tony Blair still had a teflon sheen, when what the Tories said about health didn't seem to matter very much.

Even five years ago, during my early days at Pulse, writing about Conservative policy for general practice was a bit like describing an alternative, Narnia-style reality.

Interesting, eye-catching, maybe even slightly odd, but not somewhere you expected to actually go any time soon.

That's all changed over the last couple of years, and even more dramatically in recent months and weeks.

As the expenses scandal whips round Parliament, the prospect of a general election has moved dramatically across the horizon towards us, with the Conservatives the odds-on winners. All of a sudden, what they think about general practice matters very much indeed.

Last week in Pulse, we did a couple of stories about the Tories' differing approaches to dealing with current Government health policy.

On GP-led health centres, we reported they had dropped their previously vehement opposition and now believed there would not be a bloodbath of GP closures.

That one didn't go down well with Tory central office, who insisted there had been no U-Turn. ‘Our position on polyclinics has not changed. We do not object to them in principle, but we oppose them being imposed centrally,' said a statement.

But there has certainly been a pretty dramatic change of tone. Just last summer, a Tory press release warned: ‘Conservative Party analysis shows if Labour's plans to concentrate GP services in polyclinics are delivered then one in five local GP surgeries in England would be likely to close'.

Now shadow health minister Mark Simmonds says: ‘There was genuine concern expressed by patients, particularly in rural areas, that their GP surgery would not exist for much longer. Clearly that will not be the case.'

That sounds like a change in view to me, from one slightly daft position to another.

Even smack in the middle of Pulse's campaign against the imposition of polyclinics, we never bought into that one in five figure, which always seemed a huge overestimate.

On the other hand, some GP practices have already lost fairly large numbers of patients to GP-led health centres, and it is far too early to assess what the eventual impact might be, and certainly too early for the Tories to drop their scepticism.

At least on extended hours they are sticking to their guns. We revealed this week that the Conservatives still intend to scrap targets for longer opening hours – and for the first time they explicitly stated that the extended hours DES faced the chop.

A sigh of relief from many GPs there then, but what about all that money taken up by three quarters of practices for offering extended hours, to prevent a sharp drop of income?

Of that, there is yet no word, and when a general election could be upon us far sooner than many had expected, that simply isn't good enough.

It is time the Tories provided us with real details of their plans for general practice, so that when GPs come to cast their vote, they can do so with all the cards face up on the table.

By Richard Hoey, Pulse editor

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