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Government ‘serious’ about retaining GP partnership model, says review lead

The Government and NHS England are ‘serious’ about reforming the partnership model to improve it for GPs, despite previous suggestions that it should be removed altogether, the head of the group reviewing the model has said.

Dr Nigel Watson said it was no ‘secret’ that some parts of the Government believed traditional general practice was a ‘corner shop model, and we should be put in the annals of time’.

But he said the head of NHS England and the health secretary had made it clear to him that ‘the partnership model still has value in terms of supporting the NHS’.

Dr Watson, a GP partner in Hampshire and chief executive of Wessex LMC, was appointed in May by the Government to lead its independent review of the partnership model.

His comments came as part of a roundtable event hosted by Pulse last month, which brought together GPs to discuss what changes to the model are needed.

At the event, which was held in conjunction with the Family Doctor Association, Dr Watson also revealed his thinking on the benefits of GPs working at scale – such as flexible working hours for GPs – but stressed ‘I don’t think superpartnerships are the only model’.

He also said that for superpartnerships to work, having suitable indemnity arrangements in place was ‘key’.

‘Working at scale, the issue is having a comprehensive scheme that covers everybody working in primary care. That would be hugely valuable for the system, let alone for us as individuals,’ he said.

Meanwhile, he suggested he was looking at the possibility of practices who hand back their contract to the NHS also being able to transfer the lease for the premises to the NHS.

But he suggested the arrangement was not likely to go as far as Scotland’s in which NHS boards are taking over all GP leases.

‘In terms of premises, I don’t think we’ll get to where Scotland has got to but I think there is an element of, if a practice with a 20-year lease hands its contract back, it isn’t responsible for the lease, so the NHS could take the responsibility,’ said Dr Watson.

Dr Andrew Buist – the deputy chair of GPC Scotland who helped to negotiate recent major changes to the GP contract in the country – attended the roundtable event and questioned whether the Government was serious about reforming partnerships in England.

Dr Watson said: ‘I don’t think I’m naive and if I thought it was all a charade I wouldn’t have agreed to take on the role.

‘I do think they’re serious but I don’t think there’s any particular secret that there are people in government who say that we are a corner shop model, and we should be put in the annals of time – such as in the House of Lords report last year.

‘But I can assure you that having met face to face with NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens and Jeremy Hunt, when he launched the review as health secretary, they are serious. They believe the partnership model still has value in terms of supporting the NHS,’ he added.

The House of Lords Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS published a report last year that said the traditional model of general practice was ‘no longer fit for purpose’ and the Government should explore a future where GPs are under its ‘direct employment’.

It said the ‘small business model’ of general practice was ‘inhibiting change’ that was necessary to put the NHS on a sustainable footing.

However, the RCGP said at the time that while GPs were open to new ways of working there was ‘no one-size-fits-all approach’ and that practices should be able choose the best way of working for their patients.

The organisation’s chair, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, said the independent contractor model ‘brings important benefits and must be nurtured and maintained as an option going forward’.