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Jeremy Hunt finally admits he wants ‘talk before you walk’ A&Es

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has finally admitted that he would like to see a ‘talk before you walk’ system for patients attending A&E departments.

The admission has come nearly three years after Pulse revealed that Mr Hunt had been in talks with NHS England urgent care leaders about potentially piloting such a system.

At the time, the press offices at the Department of Health and NHS England vehemently denied the story.

NHS England even went as far as to say the story was ‘false’, although they were forced to apologise when Pulse published a recording of the NHS England source.

Pulse was further vindicated when last week Mr Hunt, who now chairs the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, suggested that patients should access A&E departments via NHS 111.

In a comment piece on the opportunities the NHS has to learn from the Covid-19 crisis, published in the Health Service Journal, Mr Hunt wrote: ‘Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the Select Committee that “going back to how we used to operate is not an option – patients will die if we do.”

’Given the risks to both patients and staff of returning to crowded A&E waiting rooms she describes it as a “moral imperative” to abandon a model which allows patients with non-urgent needs to just turn up.

‘So in a period when 111 calls have doubled from 50,000 a day to around 100,000 a day, isn’t this the moment to change our emergency care model so that the point of access becomes 111, whether online or by phone? People could be directed clearly and quickly to the part of the NHS best-suited to their needs, as happens in Sweden, Norway and Denmark that have all introduced call before you walk systems whilst not reducing access to care.’

The comment piece also saw Mr Hunt suggest that general practice continue to carry out a higher proportion of remote consultations with patients using technology, including to help retain GPs in the workforce who wish to work more flexibly.

During his time as health secretary, Mr Hunt famously failed to keep a promise to recruit an extra 5,000 GPs, and in the comment piece, he wrote: ‘Could this be one of the ways we stem the decline in the GP workforce? I hope so after the times I tore my hair out trying and failing to expand it.’

Mr Hunt also suggested GPs should retain access to immediate advice from specialists rather than sending patients for multiple outpatient appointments following the pandemic.

Reacting to the suggestion of patients requiring a referral to A&Es at the time, GP urgent care leaders said the idea needed ‘a lot of thinking through’ and warned it would ‘inevitably’ put more pressure on GP out-of-hours services.