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Best Laid Plans 2021/22: Did Sajid Javid’s Winter Access Fund boost GP appointments?

The main focus of Sajid Javid’s Winter Access Fund was boosting patient access to GP appointments. We analyse whether the plan achieved this aim

When former health secretary announced that he was investing an extra £250m into general practice for the 2021/22 winter, his quid pro quo was that he expected practices to achieve at least pre-pandemic appointment levels, excluding Covid vaccinations, and for appointments to reflect the full deployment of additional roles (ARRS) staff. 

And most importantly Mr Javid wanted to see more GPs seeing patients face-to-face, with the funding to be used to increase the proportion of face-to-face appointments in the system. 

The data show that millions more appointments were being delivered in March 2022 compared with the same time in the pre-pandemic years. (Please note, we chose February 2020 as the March figures were skewed by Covid). 

The percentage of those being delivered by a GP had not changed significantly. 

Meanwhile, the proportion of face-to-face appointments – which had fallen during the pandemic as GPs were instructed by NHS England to move to remote working – stood at 62% in March 2022. 

Sajid Javid’s plan followed months of media criticism over the number of face-to-face appointments being delivered, accusing practices of providing ‘unacceptably poor access’, and claimed record numbers of patient complaints about seeing a GP in person. 

Commissioners were told to put in place immediate solutions where levels of face-to-face appointments with GPs in a practice were ‘inappropriately low’, while all practices were told to have reviewed their balance between remote and face-to-face consultations by the end of October 2021.

The NHS Digital data show that over the six months the Winter Access Fund was in place, face-to-face appointments steadily decreased to a low point of 60.3% in January 2022, a trend that slowly began to reverse from February.

In November 2022, the total number of appointments delivered in general practice soared to more than 36 million, with almost 1.7 million Covid vaccinations also delivered. 

The percentage of face-to-face appointments was 69.1%, slightly down on the previous month’s 71% – the highest proportion since February 2020.

Practice-level appointment and waiting times data in England are also now being published – another of the measures announced in Javid’s plan – although the BMA has raised concerns with NHS Digital about the data’s accuracy and potential use.