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Abandon seven-day GP opening commitment, says former health minister

Exclusive The Liberal Democrats would drop current Government plans to enforce routine seven-day GP appointments across England, their health spokesperson has said.

Speaking to Pulse ahead of the launch of the party’s election health policies, former Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb said the current ‘one size fits all’ approach was ‘irrational’, and was wasting NHS money that would be better spent elsewhere.

Asked if his party would continue the Government’s drive for extended access as a means to solve crisis in the NHS, the Norfolk MP said that a Lib Dem government would allow practices to decide the best way of extending access to services.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Lamb also laid out plans to implement a ‘health and care tax’, criticised the Government’s pledge to deliver 5,000 more GPs by 2020 and said the Liberal Democrats would increase funding for general practice.

Mr Lamb – who served as a health minister in the coalition government from 2012-2015 – said that Conservative plans to increase access through nationwide seven-day and evening routine GP opening is wasting money.

He sad: ‘I think imposing a “one size fits all” model is irrational, I don’t think it leads to a rational use of resources – you can have a practice open seven days a week but if the demand isn’t there you’re actually wasting resources.

‘I don’t support the Government’s current plan on that, I think it’s much better to look at how federations and other models – like the [Birmingham] Modality model – can increase access in localities without wasting resources in the way the Government’s plan is likely to do.’

Mr Lamb said he would instead support greater investment in alternative approaches to improve access, for example increased used of email and online consultations. He added: ‘We should be experimenting – particularly in rural areas where access is difficult over long distances.

‘For someone like me when I’m working away from home, often it’s just a question I will want to ask a GP rather than needing a 10-minute appointment which then clogs up the GP practice. If I can ask that online then, you know I think we can relieve some of that pressure.’

Mr Lamb refused to be drawn on what specific election pledges on general practice the Liberal Democrats will announce, but insisted they would include increased investment in general practice – informed by the party’s independent panel of health experts, which includes former RCGP chair and party member Professor Clare Gerada.

The panel recently advised extra money for the NHS – which the party wants to fund partly through a dedicated ‘health and care tax’ – should be ringfenced, for at least the next three years, for ‘out of hospital care’, including primary care.

Pressed on whether this means significant extra funding specifically for general practice, Mr Lamb said: ‘We have to make an additional investment in general practice, it’s a condition precedent for a well-functioning system it seems to me.’

‘We recognise you can’t sustain what’s happened in general practice and we have seen the strains on the system. I’ve recently picked up in my own county of Norfolk people waiting weeks to get an appointment, and I talk regularly to GPs who tell me that they find it impossible to recruit new partners and so on and I’m conscious also that there are quite a lot of practices on the brink close to tipping point, which is deeply worrying because if one goes it just adds impossible pressure on the remaining ones in the area.

‘We recognise that has to change and we will ensure that we address that through the additional resources we would raise for the NHS.’

The former health minister added that ‘we also have to make sure we have a sufficient workforce’ but was scathing about the Government’s pledge to deliver 5,000 more GPs by 2020, which he said had been proposed ‘without any means of delivering it as far as I can see’.

He said: ‘We completely understand the need to do this properly and we don’t want to just have a back of the fag packet calculation, it needs to be a proper workforce assessment.’