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Labour pledges to push through second wave of Darzi centres

By Alisdair Stirling

The Labour party is pledging to push through a second wave of Darzi centres should it win the general election, as the next stage in its relentless focus on primary care access.

The move has been welcomed by private companies in contention to run the centres, but criticised by many GPs, who warned it would be irresponsible to expand the policy before the first wave has been evaluated.

Labour’s manifesto promises: ‘We will ensure the NHS suits the lives of busy families, expanding further the availability of GP-led health centres open seven days a week, 8 til 8, in towns and cities.’

The party said PCTs would be encouraged to launch new centres at their discretion, and NHS organisations would offer telephone and online booking via the NHS Choices website. At least one PCT – NHS Berkshire West – has already said it plans further Darzi centres.

The Conservative manifesto also contained a less-specific commitment to access to GP-led centres for all patients, while the Liberal Democrats did not specifically refer to the policy.

Labour’s pledge looks designed to support its planned rollout of diagnostic services for cancer, which it has said will be based at GP-led health centres. Yet a new Pulse survey of 380 GPs found only 22% supported that policy, with 60% opposing it.

It follows Pulse investigations into the rollout of the first wave of centres finding they cost an average of three times as much per patient as GP practices and many were missing registration targets.

A second wave of Darzi centres is being seen as a major opportunity by the private sector to take a firmer grip on services. Care UK, which runs 12 centres, said the move was essential to expand patient choice.

Dr Mark Hunt, a GP and managing director of healthcare at Care UK, said: ´I welcome the manifesto commitments by all the major parties to expand access to primary care from 8am to 8pm, and the recognition of the role of the independent sector.´

Meanwhile, management of the GP services at the Loxford polyclinic in Redbridge – the first fully fledged polyclinic in the country opened by Lord Darzi himself – has been transferred from the PCT to private company The Practice PLC.

Dr Nigel Watson, chair of the GPC´s commissioning and service development subcommittee, said: ´It will take up to two years to evaluate the impact of Darzi centres. Generally, registrations are not as high as expected but walk-ins are higher. There has been no evidence their introduction has decreased workload at A&E or local practices.’

He added: ´Where there is demonstrable need we’d support local negotiations about developing provision of primary care, as a way of complimenting existing general practice, not damaging it.’

But Dr Tom Frewin, a GP in Bristol, said: ‘The Government seems to be throwing money at Darzi centres. If they were efficient and cost-effective I would understand it, but they’re not.’

The Loxford polyclinic in Redbridge will be run by a private company Follow the latest with Pulse’s election tracker Pulse election coverage