Almost five million patients have waited more than two weeks for a GP appointment each month since September, an analysis by Labour has claimed.
The party used NHS Digital data to show that in the five months since the Government pledged to end waits of over two weeks, just under 24 million appointments have fallen into this category, with an average of five million a month.
There were 1.2 million more ‘late appointments’ in February than in the same month last year, which means patients ‘were almost 50% more likely to wait longer than two weeks’, Labour claimed today.
In September, then-health secretary Thérèse Coffey published a plan which stipulated that GPs must see patients who ‘need’ an appointment within two weeks, however it was unclear how this would be policed.
At the time, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said patients ‘deserve better than a two-week wait’ for GP appointments and a Labour Government would have ‘higher standards’.
The Labour Party said that although the Government did not set a date by which this target needs to be achieved, ‘millions of patients have waited longer for a GP appointment than promised by the Conservatives’.
The party also highlighted that the Conservative Government has ‘failed over the past 13 years to train enough GPs’, saying that despite the 2019 manifesto commitment to recruit 6,000 more, there are in fact 2,000 fewer GPs today than in 2015.
The shadow health secretary will give a speech tomorrow morning outlining Labour’s plans and broader thinking on primary care reform.
Mr Streeting said: ‘Patients are finding it impossible to get a GP appointment when they need one, after 13 years of Conservative broken promises and understaffing of the NHS.
‘These unacceptable waiting times mean illness will go undiagnosed for longer, while patients are left in pain and discomfort for weeks, or even months.’
He added: ‘Labour will fix the front door to the NHS, starting by doubling medical school places, so we train 7,500 extra doctors and 10,000 more nurses a year.
‘We will pay for it by abolishing the non-dom tax status, because patients need doctors and nurses more than the wealthiest need a tax break.’
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, who chairs the Royal College of GPs, said that GPs are ‘working tirelessly to deliver safe, timely and appropriate care’ and that around 85% of appointments in general practice are already happening within two weeks of being booked.
She said: ‘GPs and our teams are the bedrock of the NHS, making the vast majority of NHS patients contacts and in doing so alleviating pressures across the health service, including in A&E. But we can only do this if our service is staffed and resourced sufficiently – and currently this is not the case.
‘We share our patients’ frustration when they struggle to access our care, however, this is not down to GPs and their hard-working teams, but due to decades of under-funding and poor resource planning.
‘We are delivering more appointments overall compared to before the pandemic, but with 852 fewer full-time fully qualified GPs compared to 2019.
‘It is not too late to turn this dire situation around to revitalise general practice as a clinician’s career of choice, and restore continuity of care for patients.’
Over the weekend, the Labour Party pledged ‘thousands more GPs’ to ‘bring back the family doctor and guarantee face-to-face appointments to all who want them’.
This was part of a promise to train 15,000 doctors a year, doubling the current figure, however GPs criticised the party’s focus on ‘soundbites’ rather than on meaningful policy.
And yesterday Labour claimed that 18% of patients attending A&E last year did so because they were not able to get a GP appointment, amounting to 4.5 million attendances.
The NHS Confederation’s director of primary care Ruth Rankine said Labour’s aims are ‘laudable’ but ‘with 124,000 vacancies across the NHS, staffing is the biggest challenge’.
She said: ‘We are still waiting for the long overdue workforce plan and we know that the government is likely to miss its target of an extra 6,000 GPs by 2025.
‘Not only is a fully funded, ambitious plan for future staffing absolutely critical to addressing access challenges, more must be done to protect and retain the workforce we have today otherwise we risk making promises to the public that are simply undeliverable.’
NHS England’s long-awaited workforce plan, which was due to be published in March but is still yet to be published, could see thousands of apprentice doctors trained directly on the job.