Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that GPs have an ‘obligation to follow their contracts’, following calls from local GP leaders for the BMA to support vulnerable practices to go private.
Mr Hunt was responding to a question about the motion set for debate at next week’s England LMCs Conference, first reported by Pulse, which called for practices to be ‘supported to operate within a private, alternative model’ if they feel they can no longer operate within the NHS.
Speaking to MPs on the Commons Health Select Committee, the health secretary said practices’ ‘contract with the state’ was their principal source of income, so they have a responsibility to look after NHS patients.
Responding to a question on the motion, Mr Hunt said: ‘I would listen to everything that came out of any BMA conference carefully but the Government makes policy on the NHS, not the GPs, and they do have an obligation to follow the contracts that they have.
‘But obviously if there is concern about the levels of workload and about the capacity of the system then that is something that I am going to listen to very carefully.”
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw – a former health minister himself – asked Mr Hunt: ‘[GPs] are private contractors aren’t they and you couldn’t just stop them [abandoning the NHS]. Does this not show how bad things have got to that GPs are even considering en masse abandoning the NHS?’
Mr Hunt responded by saying the Conservative Party had wanted GPs to be NHS employees when the NHS was set up in 1948.
He added: ‘The point I am making is, yes they are private contractors but they also do have a contract with the state which is the source of their income, and we have a responsibility under that contract to look after all NHS patients in the area they operate.’
Explaining the pressure GPs are under, Mr Hunt said: ‘I think we have to look at the underlying reason why those kind of motions are being debated, and I think it is GPs feel that their workload is too high, their job has become too stressful. Sometimes they feel that they are on some sort of hamster wheel of between 30 and 40 ten-minute appointments every day, and it is exhausting.
‘The long-term solution to that is to get more capacity into the system, which is why we have our plan to recruit 5,000 more GPs which we are in the middle of trying to deliver. Some bits of that plan are going well, other bits less well, but I am absolutely determined to deliver that and I think that is the long-term solution.’
He added that he hoped GPs had taken from recent announcements he had made that this was ‘an area of great concern for the Government as well and we are taking a number of measures to try and relieve the pressures on general practice’.
Explaining to the committee how he was working on resolving the GP workforce crisis, Mr Hunt mentioned both the recently unveiled state-backed indemnity scheme, and the expanded incentive scheme to get GP trainees into areas that have found it difficult to recruit.
At the same hearing, Mr Hunt said NHS was struggling financially because demand ‘has grown faster’ than the Department of Health ‘had anticipated’, linking growth in emergency services demand to ‘underinvesting’ in general practice.
Mr Hunt said: ‘We can do an enormous amount to bring down demand for emergency care. In the ambulance service we have 4,400 999 calls more every day than we had in 2010, that creates massive pressure on the emergency services.
‘One of the reasons for the pressure is we have underinvested in general practice in recent decades, and have underinvested in the kind of community care, so that would mean that people would not get to the point where they have to dial 999 and additional expensive hospital care. That’s what the whole sustainability model is about.’