Prime Minister Theresa May was speaking out of ‘frustration’ with GP leaders reneging on commitments to seven day access when she blamed GPs for causing the A&E crisis, the health secretary has claimed.
Speaking in front of the Commons health committee today, Jeremy Hunt defended the Prime Minister’s comments that GPs were ‘not providing the access patients need’ , saying that GP leaders were ‘scaling back’ their seven-day commitments despite NHS England promising to increase primary care funding by 14% by 2020 – £2.4bn a year.
But GP leaders pointed out that many seven-day pilots are having to scale down their operations because the funding provided by the Government is proving inadequate.
Mr Hunt was responding to questions from GP and committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston who said ‘very many GPs had felt demoralised and scapegoated’ by the Prime Minister’s comments.
Dr Wollaston also highlighted problems with existing seven-day access schemes, such as the one revealed by Pulse where local GP leaders are requiring practices to ensure 60% of their extended access appointments are taken up to ‘assure NHS England of value for money’.
But Mr Hunt told the MPs that the main problem with the schemes was reluctance on the part of GPs.
He said: ‘I think the comments that were made [by Theresa May] were in part a sense of frustration shared throughout the Government that some GP leaders had talked about scaling back GPs’ commitment to a seven-day NHS despite the fact that the Government made a commitment last year for a 14% real-terms increase in GP’s annual budget by the end of the parliament – an extra £2.4bn – as part of a very carefully costed and agreed programme towards making sure people are offered seven-day access to GPs.
‘I think it’s very important that, as the Government must stick to its side of the deal on funding for general practice, that the profession also respects – as part of its side of the deal – its meeting of manifesto commitments.’
He added that general practice was seeing more investment than any part of the NHS, other than perhaps mental health.
But GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said that GPs were under no contractual obligation to deliver on the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledges.
He added: ‘This is a local issue related to roll out of weekend service and is not linked to the national contract. The reality is that the funding promised in the GPFV is a lot less than many PM Challenge Fund sites have been operating on and they’ve had to start cutting back on the services they’d set up because they are no longer sustainable with the funding they are now being provided with.
‘However, [Mrs May’s comments] had little to do with GP seven-day services and everything to do with trying to create a smokescreen to distract attention from the wider NHS and social care crisis. The attempt to scapegoat GPs spectacularly backfired and patients know the reality of the situation.’
The first line of the Conservative Party manifesto pledges everyone will have routine seven-day access to ‘your GP’.
In the same session, Mr Hunt has conceded that demand on Sundays and Saturday afternoons tended to be lower than Saturday morning.
He also talked about the impact of Brexit on health and social care, saying:
- The UK had not experienced the immediate economic slowdown predicted, and the ‘long-term impact of Brexit could be positive’ and a catalyst for other changes;
- One area to change when the UK has left the EU would be standardising stricter tests for EU nationals’ clinical language skills, which currently only apply for doctors from outside the European Economic Area;
- There have been ‘anecdotal’ reports of a decline in applications for NHS jobs from the EU, but not a mass exodus;
- Plans to charge overseas visitors for using the NHS have been superseded by Brexit, and there are no immediate plans to push this forward.