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Health minister ‘not bothered’ by lack of Sunday GP appointment uptake

Health minister Alistair Burt has told MPs he is ‘not bothered’ by the lack of uptake of Sunday appointments in the seven-day GP access pilots, and that there are no plans to withdraw funding.

Mr Burt was being questioned by the House of Commons health committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston about how much evidence the Government needed of ‘poor uptake’ before deciding to use the funding where it was more use.

But Mr Burt said evidence that Sundays in particular were not popular among patients, including the results from the official NHS England evaluation of the first-wave pilots, did not ‘bother’ him.

The official evaluation of the pilot scheme also concluded that resources were not well spent on routine Sunday appointments due to ‘very low utilisation’, which had ‘been evident nationwide’.

But Mr Burt said: ‘The truth about whether or not people are going to be interested in Sundays will emerge over time and it will be different in different places. There are places like Greater Manchester, Bolton, Bury, where Sunday opening has worked very well and people are using it.

’There are other places where there has not been much interest. Now, frankly, I’m not particularly bothered. The whole point is to say “general practice is changing, demand for access is very different to how it was in the past”.’

Dr Wollaston said: ’Isn’t it rather unfortunate though to use the term “I’m not particularly bothered” when money is so tight and can you actually clarify, when you talk about evaluation – because we do need to have evidence-based policy – at what point you will make a decision, if uptake is relatively poor on Sundays and continues to be, that that is not best value for money?’

But Mr Burt said there were no plans to discontinue Sunday appointment funding, with the two waves of Challenge Fund pilots to ‘come to an end in due course’.

He said: ‘I think that if the pilots demonstrate that people’s use of a Sunday is different in one area from another I don’t think that there is any point… that we want doctors sitting in a surgery on a Sunday morning reading the papers.I don’t see the point of that but I don’t think we have reached anything like the point where that can be considered.

’It is true that if people are not used to a pattern of access it takes time for that to become clear. I don’t think that is clear yet and I think that should be given a decent run.’

There was no mention of the Prime Minister’s new alternative GP contract, to be rolled out from 2017, being set to include a seven-day access requirement.

Dr Wollaston further queried whether the Department of Health was going to take action on reports from some Challenge Fund areas that out-of-hours GP services are struggling to fill shifts due to competition from the pilots.

However Mr Burt said: ’Of course we would but we have no such evidence at this stage.’

Should Alisdair Burt be bothered about seven-day GP demand?

Pulse was first to report that a quarter of wave one Challenge Fund areas had reduced weekend opening due to a lack of demand from patients and, more recently, that only three of the first-wave areas have committed to continue funding seven-day services.

Later, the official evaluation of the DH’s pilot scheme concluded that resources were not well spent on routine Sunday appointments due to ‘very low utilisation’, which had ‘been evident nationwide’. 

The research concluded that ‘additional hours are most likely to be well utilised if provided during the week or on Saturdays (particularly Saturday mornings)’ and that any weekend appointments made available ‘might best be reserved for urgent care rather than pre-bookable slots’.

Pulse has also reported that seven-day access schemes have ‘caused mayhem’ in out-of-hours services, with one provider stating it had ‘lost a quarter of the workforce in a matter of weeks’.

See more: Wheels come off PM’s seven-day GP access drive