Seven-day access has now been fully rolled out across England, according to NHS England.
The body said that every patient in England should now able to see a GP in the evening or at weekends, with around nine million extra appointments set to be provided a year.
NHS England said it has launched a communications campaign in the run up to Christmas to raise public awareness of the extra appointments.
This comes after a Pulse investigation earlier this year revealed that the scheme failed to fill appointments in areas where it was rolled out and garnered little support from GP leaders.
NHS England’s director of primary care delivery Dominic Hardy said: ‘Local health services have worked hard to ensure patients have access to our excellent general practice services right across the country. Because of this hard work, we have been able to make these extra appointments available months ahead of schedule and before winter really starts.
‘As well as offering convenience and choice to patients, it will help to reduce some of the pressure on general practice and A&Es and ease some of the wider system pressures we saw last winter.’
But GP leaders argued that GPs are still under ‘intense resource and workforce pressures’ and called for better investment in core GP services to help ‘practices struggling to meet growing demand’.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘GPs across the country have worked hard to establish this extended service in evenings and weekends. It will provide some additional appointments for patients but there remains huge pressure on practices as a whole, as the needs of patients is increasing at the same time that we are facing a year by year fall in the number of GPs.
‘This leaves practices struggling to meet growing demand and why the need to invest in core general practice services remains so urgent.’
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘GPs across the country are going above and beyond to ensure we can deliver good, safe care for our patients under intense resource and workforce pressures.’
She added: ‘We are preparing for a very busy winter in general practice. Our patients should always be able to access GP services if they become ill, either through our routine service, or the GP out of hours service – but we would also encourage patients to think about whether they really need to see a GP, or whether self-care or visiting a pharmacist are options in the first instance.’
The first winter pressures report, released by NHS England last week, found that the NHS had the worst November of record for the four-hour A&E waiting time target. In response, GPs warned that this will be the ‘toughest winter yet’.