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What are the next steps following the GP contract imposition?

What are the next steps following the GP contract imposition?

Jaimie Kaffash and Eliza Parr examine what will happen after NHS England imposed a contract on GPs this week

NHS England yesterday (Monday 6 March) informed GPs about the imposed contract. This came after failed talks with the BMA’s GP Committee negotiators. The imposed contract was expected but was no more welcome as a result.

The letter to the profession, signed by Dr Amanda Doyle, NHS England national director for primary care and community services, set out what the changes would be for 2023/24, plus some direction around the 2024 contract, which is set to bring in major reforms to the profession.

But what does the letter mean for practices in the immediate term? And what are the next steps for the BMA and the profession?

Immediate practical considerations for practices

Despite the understandable anger the letter has caused for the profession, it is actually fairly short on detail – most of which will come when the actual contract for 2023/24 is published.

Access

One of the most worrying parts of the contract for GPs was the contractual requirement for patients to be offered an ‘assessment of need’, or signposted to an appropriate service, at first contact with the practice. Practices will therefore ‘no longer be able to request that patients contact the practice at a later time’, said NHS England.

In reality, it is unclear what is meant by this. Some GPs have speculated that it means that every patient will need to be triaged when they contact the practice. Other GP leaders have told Pulse that this might not lead to many changes when implemented, and that policing any requirement will be an impossibility. But we will need to await further detail before finding out what practices need to do, and how punitive the requirements will be.

There are also changes to the investment and impact fund (IIF) for PCNs to focus on access, as well as QOF changes. This will include targets around two-week waiting lists. Again, we await details.

Automatic access to patient records

GP practices will need to be ready to turn on automatic access for patients to their future records through the NHS App by 31 October 2023. This was supposed to have been implemented last year, but concerns raised by GPs, the BMA and the RCGP saw NHS England delay the original deadline of November 2022. This contract gives certainty, but there is no indication that the safety concerns – which revolve around practices having to check sensitive information, especially for vulnerable patients – have been resolved.

It also confirms that NHS England is still looking to allow automatic access for patients to their historic records – which will be another level of workload, with practices having to look through all the information they have previously added to patient records. But there isn’t any indication as to when this will be introduced.

QOF

There will be changes to QOF from April. Some of these are pretty clear, and practices will be able to action them soon enough, such as the removal of indicators, including one around rheumatoid arthritis and a change in the requirements for atrial fibrillation.

However, many of the other changes to the QOF require further details. For example, the letter said that income for ‘register indicators’ is to be protected, with funding paid to practices monthly based on their 2022/23 performance. This will ‘release £97m’, said NHS England. These register indicators are those where practices get QOF points for maintaining a register, which involves minimal workload. So, in that case, it is concerning what NHS England means when it says £97m is being ‘released’.

There are new indicators around cholesterol and mental health, but details are needed on these. And the QI modules next year will focus on workforce and wellbeing, and optimisation of demand and capacity management in general practice, but again practices won’t be able to plan without seeing the actual contract.

The suggestion that QOF is to be ‘streamlined’ in the major 2024 contract also gives little clue as to what will happen – understandably, perhaps, considering it will be subject to consultation.

Additional roles

PCNs will be able to employ advanced nurse practitioners through the additional roles reimbursement scheme from April, and will be able to employ more mental health workers. Of course, the issue will still remain as to where to find them. 

Telephone systems

NHS England have mandated the use of ‘cloud-based telephony’, which will be provided though their own framework. However, this won’t need to be introduced until 2025. 

BMA’s next move

The truth is, the requirements in the contract are likely to be frustrating rather than onerous – but this will of course depend on the details.

However, the BMA’s main issue with the contract offer they rejected was the lack of further funding beyond that agreed in 2019 as part of the five-year deal. But with inflation currently sky high, practices need more than the circa 2%-3% uplift they will receive.

More coverage of the GP contract imposition

NHS England imposes GP contract with focus on access

‘The final nails in the coffin’: All the reaction to the GP contract imposition

What the QOF changes will mean for GP practices

Childhood immunisation scheme to include exception reporting and lower targets

Practices can ‘no longer ask patients to contact them at later date’ under contract changes

Practices required to procure cloud-based telephony under new contract

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Read our full section on the GP contract

Regardless, it is the lack of funding that will drive the BMA on to take further action. The first thing they need is to get agreement on the next course of action from the GP Committee as a whole. Pulse understands that the wider GPC only found out about the imposition through Pulse’s reporting yesterday. As Dr Michelle Drage, chief executive of Londonwide LMCs and a member of the GPC, said on her blog: ‘To me, the way in which the outcome of the unsuccessful contract negotiations has been made public feels unprofessional, and an example of bad faith.’

Now, there are talks with the wider BMA about funding an emergency GPC meeting to discuss the next move. If and when the GPC does convene an emergency meeting, it is almost certain they will conduct a consultative ballot with GPs to gauge the mood of grassroots GPs. The BMA has just announced the results of a consultative ballot with consultants, which found an appetite for strike action. The likely consultative ballot with GPs won’t actually give a mandate for industrial action, but it will inform a future ballot.

It is pure speculation for now, but there might be other suggestions on such a ballot – something closer to ‘work to rule’, with practices refusing any non-contractual work

The BMA ran an indicative ballot in November 2021 on what action GPs would be willing to take against NHS England and the Government’s access plan, and results showed that over a half of GP practices would support withdrawal from the PCN DES. This might well be on an indicative ballot again.

Potential industrial action

Following NHS England’s announcement of a new contract for 2023/24, the BMA GPC said it will now ‘enter serious discussions with our membership and the wider profession on what action we take next’. 

The BMA had previously set up a working group preparing for GP industrial action, which was understood to be floating options going further than before.

It is not as simple as GPs ‘striking’, however. GP partners are not employed, and their contract to supply services is a commercial one rather than an employment contract. 

This means they cannot ‘strike’ in the same way as junior doctors, for example, and any action along the lines of a strike would be considered a breach of a commercial contract. 

However, last month legal experts told Pulse that withdrawing services for a day is an option on the table for GPs if they wanted to take collective action. 

Professor Gregor Gall, an industrial relations professor at the University of Glasgow, said GPs could theoretically decide to shut for the day and therefore breach their contract.

He said: ‘Depending upon the content of those contracts, there could be financial (likes fines) and other consequences for doing so (like termination).’

But he said that given existing demand pressures upon GPs and the lack of a new supply, any health authority is not likely to do much that would jeopardise the continuation of those contracts, for fear of creating even more disruption and eliciting a huge public backlash.

Daniel Wilde, a partner specialising in employment law at Harding Evans solicitors, explained that GPs cannot be in an industrial dispute with their employers, since they are not employees, but they can be in a dispute with their commissioners.

He added: ‘As long as the BMA’s ballot is lawful, there is no reason GPs cannot close for the day as a form of industrial action (or only offer urgent care).’

Appetite from GPs on how far they will go

Despite moves from the BMA towards industrial action, there appears to be mixed support for it among grassroots GPs. 

Retired GP and chair GP Survival Dr John Hughes said there has ‘certainly been a strengthening in the thoughts about taking industrial action’.

He puts this down to the way GPs were treated in the pandemic, the media’s portrayal of GPs, and most recently the new contract announcement, which is ‘another nail in the coffin’. 

Instead of a walkout, Dr Hughes said ‘undated resignations’ would be a more viable option, which is the process whereby GPs resign en masse from the contract and set up independently. 

He describes this as the ‘nuclear option’ and the one with ‘the greatest leverage’, but that another consultative ballot probably needs to run before action like this to gauge the views of most GPs. 

In response to the contract imposition, the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK) said it will be watching the BMA’s next steps closely and believes industrial action is the only option.

Dr Lizzie Toberty, DAUK GP lead, said: ‘This contract imposition seems to imply NHSE does not view GPs as equal partners in providing high quality patient care, but as a profession who need to be beaten into submission.

‘If we as a profession do not collectively act to resist these changes, I fear we will see an acceleration of two-tier medical care, similar to that of dentistry.’

But there are concerns from some GPs about the potential public opinion on strike action, and also its effectiveness as a tool to improve the general practice landscape. 

Dr John Ashcroft, a GP in Derbyshire, said that while the current Government approach to general practice is ‘fundamentally wrong’, industrial action does not seem the best option as ‘there is a risk it will turn people against us’. 

He said that not striking and lobbying for a better contract may be more effective: ‘Perhaps we have to take the higher moral level and say “we’re not going to go on strike for this, it’s not going to help patients, but you as Government have failed to invest in general practice.”’

It may need a stronger consensus for GPs to take any kind of ‘nuclear option’, in that case.


          

READERS' COMMENTS [14]

Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

fareed bhatti 7 March, 2023 4:58 pm

Dr John Ashcroft, a GP in Derbyshire, said that while the current Government approach to general practice is ‘fundamentally wrong’, industrial action does not seem the best option as ‘there is a risk it will turn people against us’.
Newsflash- we are not loved-not by our pts(the tabloids and media channels including BBC have seen to that undoubtedly at the Govt’s behest and because it sells) and not loved by sec care either (a consultants remark widely reported ‘ would we even notice ?’ if GPs closed doors forever)
To strike is to actually protect these patients for whom services are being eroded ( remember the days when pts were actually seen by an NHS neurologist, cardiologist or dermatologist ?) and for the future. OUR FUTURE. Unless you feel you can pay for all you care in old age.

Cameron Wilson 7 March, 2023 5:12 pm

If you ask an airey fairy question don’t be surprised if the answer is neither here nor there!
Asking for undated resignation without a viable alternative is probably a non starter.
The local partnership/ or however it’s structured seems the best for doctors and patients so would be a good place to start.
Funding is of course the elephant in the room but other countries seem to have a system that manages better and certainly should be considered. Relying on HMG in whatever guise hasn’t been successful.
Think if there’s a sensible option then the BMA might be surprised at the level of support!
The failure to have an option has been a strategic flaw for years,and certainly when unilateral imposition is the new norm!

neo 99 7 March, 2023 5:19 pm

industrial action, undated resignation without a worked out plan B are all pointless. What is needed is a ballot on undated resignation on 31st March 2024 and for the GPC to start preparing for plan B outside the the NHS as of that date. This is really the only option if you want to remain independent and in control. Otherwise you will have the next 5 year plan with recurrent impositions of contract and primary care subsumed and “integrated” (as Amanda Doyle has said) at the end of 5 years as a donkey 3rd rate non GP led service within the NHS with comparable poor pay. It’s crunch time. I’m pretty confidence however the professional does not have the stomach to walk away so we are headed for more of the same.

Mr Marvellous 7 March, 2023 5:22 pm

‘Perhaps we have to take the higher moral level and say “we’re not going to go on strike for this, it’s not going to help patients, but you as Government have failed to invest in general practice.”’

That’s been the plan for the last decade. Hasn’t worked, has it?

neo 99 7 March, 2023 5:22 pm

@Cameron Wilson. You beat me to it! Well said!

Pradeep Bahalkar 7 March, 2023 7:26 pm

Hopefully BMA/GPC comes out with alternative option for GP to show how GP can provide service and get reimbursed reasonably, Once GP colleagues see that there is alternative option which is reasonable . Lot of GP partners who have apprehension about walking away from contracts and implication of that will be reassured and support that movement. Without that Plan B in place, walking away or undated resignation is not going to happen .

John Glasspool 7 March, 2023 8:39 pm

Surrender. As always.

neo 99 7 March, 2023 9:05 pm

£250 per patient per year sign up charge (Base cost to include repeat script processing and paperwork etc) and £25-£30 per 15 min consultation should be able to keep almost all practices viable. We decide on the service model and different rates for nurse led care such as chronic disease management, minor ops etc. Any reimbursement arrangements for Patients should be left for HMG to decide post consult direct with the patients . Should still be allowed to prescribe on Fp10 for patients. Still cheap at this rate. Far less than current average energy costs for an average family of 4. Time to stop the defunding and be realistic about the costs of healthcare.

Michael Corrie 8 March, 2023 8:42 am

.

John Ashcroft 8 March, 2023 10:26 am

My argument against the obvious knee jerk response to more imposed contract changes is that we need a fundamentally different contract. It needs to be work sensitive, which is supported by LMC conference. Under the present contract if your practice delivers more; so more or longer GP or nurse appointments; partners will take home less. This is bad for doctors, patients and the NHS.
That should be the focus and the entire focus. A new work sensitive contract by April 2024 or we resign or NHS contracts.

Wolfgang Wallat 8 March, 2023 11:20 am

What about patients health and well-being? Emphasis on patient experience is not solving any health problems!

Just Your Average Joe 11 March, 2023 7:04 pm

Time to work to a safe level only.

Fill appointments fir day then like ambulances let patients queue all the way back to local MPs front door.

A couple of days limited to safe working as workforce availabilty and funding allows should get the Tories back to the negotiation table.

Then a work related contract not an unlimited number of appointments and workload with minimal funding for a third if the contacts we see.

John Evans 14 March, 2023 12:33 pm

Why wait until 2024? Start now as the process is likely to be complicated.

First = work out what a ‘good’ contract would look like and a contingency for when the government accepts the mass resignation.

Second = ballot.

Third = agree on a mechanism to coordinate contract resignation (otherwise too many will sit and let others act)

Fourth = serve 3 months’ notice at the end of which either they will have to have agreed to a new contract with a safe workload factored in or have accepted the mass resignation.

Fifth = cross your fingers hoping that fellow GPs do not take liberties/opportunities to cherry-pick amongst the resigned contracts or go to work for corporates taking over the practices.

I suspect that the opportunity for GPs to act and actually win already passed 5-10 years ago.

Merlin Wyltt 16 March, 2023 5:01 am

The plan is to chip away at the Partnership model. Primary care in the UK is in a complete mess. The system is overwhelmed. The workforce has disintegrated. Patient care is inconsistent.
It’s time to start the syringe driver