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NHS managers set to make u-turn on Christmas opening hours

NHS England looks set to make a u-turn on its stance that practices must open from 8:00am to 6:30pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, LMCs have reported.

As Pulse exclusively revealed, LMCs had received threatening letters from NHS England local area teams, warning that practices would be in breach of contract if they outsourced work to out-of-hours providers on those days, despite being traditionally quiet times.

However, NHS England yesterday issued draft guidance suggesting that practices will be able to ‘engage a deputised provider’.

This follows guidance issued by the GPC designed to ‘correct inaccurate information’ released by NHS England, which clarified that practices must simply ensure they have made adequate provisions on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

In October NHS England briefed its local area teams that Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve must be treated as regular working days and subsequently several teams wrote to practices warning that attempts to outsource work to out-of-hours providers would result in breach of contract notices.

GPs were quick to highlight that historically demand for GP services was particularly low around this period and a number of LMCs sought legal advice which confirmed early closing was permitted by contract regulations.

Speaking to Pulse yesterday, Londonwide LMCs medical secretary Dr Tony Grewal said he had received correspondence signalling a change in NHS England’s approach.

He said: ‘I have today had a letter from NHS England via Londonwide LMCs. It’s a draft letter to practices, notifying them of proposals to – I quote – “engage a deputised provider”.’

‘[It says] “if you choose to subcontract these obligations, we need to ensure the delegated provider is able to deliver essential services”. And it’s asking for details of plans for the practice and who will be covering if they’re not doing it themselves.’

This ‘signals a change in position’, he said: ‘They accept GPs may engage an alternative provider and they’re asking for reassurance from GPs that it will be adequate and the quality will be acceptable.’

This follows the GPC’s move to issue guidance clarifying practices’ duties over the Christmas period.

It stated that practices would not have to work full opening hours over the two days, but said practices should advise NHS England local area teams of historically low levels of demand at this time, be able to confirm adequate provisions are in place and formally apply in writing to area teams if they wish to subcontract.

A BMA spokesperson told Pulse: ‘The BMA guidance is designed to correct inaccurate information published by NHS England which suggested practices would be breaching their contractual obligations by altering their opening times during the Christmas period.’

‘However, the BMA does believe that GPs should maintain reasonable services for patients throughout the Christmas and New Year period.’

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey  said: ‘It is important that NHS England do not get caught up in the media-induced panic relating to winter pressures, but act appropriately and reasonably.’

‘It will surprise some, but practices have experience of the fact that Christmas comes once a year, and they put in place tried and tested arrangements to meet the needs of their patients throughout the holiday period.’