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Burnham: Scrapping of 48-hour target has led to longer waits for GP appointments

The Coalition Government’s decision to get rid of the 48-hour target for GP appointments is one of the leading causes behind why GP waiting times are now longer, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has claimed.

Speaking today at a House of Commons debate over current pressures on the NHS, Mr Burnham also said Government claims that there are now more GPs than there were in 2010 are ‘simply not true’.

He said the two issues in combination is what has led to one in four patients having to wait a week or more for an appointment.

Mr Burnham told the house: ‘The last GP workforce census conducted under the last Government was in September 2009 and that found that there were 35,970 GPs working in England. The latest census from which figures are available is September 2013 and that found there were 35,561 GPs working in England.’

He added: ‘But… it is not just the fact that the GP headcount has gone down. One of the first acts of this Government was to scrap the guarantee of an appointment within 48 hours and incentives to open GP surgeries during evenings and at weekends. That, combined with cuts to GP budget, means it has got harder and harder to get a GP appointment in recent years. All of our constituents, all of us here, our constituents say “I’m ringing the surgery at 8am or 9am every morning and I am being told that nothing is available for days”.

‘In 2010 the vast majority of people said they were able to get an appointment within 48 hours, 80% of people said they could do that. Now according to the GP patient survey one in four people say they must wait a week or more to see a GP.’

The Labour Party has promised that patients will again be guaranteed a GP appointment within 48 hours if they win the general election in May, however without specifying how this will be achieved.

But, responding to the claims, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the Government is working to improve GP access via its flagship policy to expand opening in evenings and weekends.

He said: ‘One of the reasons for the pressure [on the NHS] is that people increasingly to exect to be able to get medical care 24/7, just as they are able to bank, shop and book their holidays 24/7. The NHS cannot be King Canute and try to stop this.

‘I am not blaming any patients for this, I am just saying it is a fact that this is how patient expectations are changing and that is why we need to give them better alternatives to turning up at A&E, and that is why over the last two years we have expanded weekend and evening GP appointments to over five million people.’

The debate also saw Mr Burnham criticise the current track record of the NHS 111 helpline, which has been accused of increasing the number of patients being directed A&E.

But Mr Hunt responded: ‘We’ve also rolled out the 111 service, now handling three times more calls every year than its predecessor NHS Direct. He [Mr Burnham] criticised NHS 111, so let us look at the facts. Out of those who called 111, 30% said they would have gone to A&E but decided not to as a result. That is two million journeys to A&E avoided and indeed around 600,000 ambulance call outs avoided because of 111.’