The Labour Party has pledged ‘thousands more GPs’ as it claims that almost three million patients have seen their practice close or merge in the past five years.
The party promised to ‘bring back the family doctor and guarantee face-to-face appointments to all who want them’, while highlighting the reduction in GP workforce and the increase in number of patients per GP practice.
But GPs criticised the opposition for its failure to grasp the problems around general practice and relying on ‘soundbites’ rather than meaningful policy.
And the BMA said that while it is ‘encouraging’ that politicians in the Labour Party want to tackle the GP workforce crisis, they should not ‘demonise’ GP practices in the process.
Citing an ONS survey tracking the impact of NHS winter pressures, Labour said almost one in four patients could not get a GP appointment last time they tried to book.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said patients are ‘finding it impossible’ to get a GP appointment and blamed this on the Conservative Party’s ‘failure to train enough doctors’.
He said: ‘Practices are shutting up shop across the country, leaving people to travel miles to be seen, and GPs overburdened’.
Labour promised to train 15,000 doctors a year, doubling the current figure, and would pay for this by abolishing the non-dom tax status which ‘allows wealthy people living and working in Britain to pay their taxes overseas’.
Dr Steve Taylor, a GP in Manchester and GP spokesperson for the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK), said ‘the problem with the Labour policy at the moment is they’re not talking about retention’ which is ‘the biggest issue by a country mile’.
He added: ‘They’re giving higher expectations to patients which just cannot be met with the current level of doctors we have in the UK.
‘It’s a complete soundbite that everyone will be able to see a doctor of their choice. We’re about 8,000 doctors short of that, which is an entire medical school year output. It’s not going to happen is it?’
Responding to Labour’s pledge on Twitter, Dr Maggie Wearmouth, a GP and former member of the JCVI, said this would happen ‘in their dreams’ as it takes 10 to 15 years to train a GP.
Dr Wearmouth added: ‘Labour must address the retention issues first otherwise there will be no one to train up new doctors, let alone see patients.’
Dr Richard van Mellaerts, deputy chair of GPC England at the BMA, said it is ‘disappointing’ that Labour’s medical school pledge ‘has been paired with the suggestion that existing staff are somehow not doing enough – even going as far as to demonise individual practices’.
Dr Mellaerts noted that practices booked more than 27 million appointments in February, almost two million more than the same month last year, and also that practices offer a range consultation modes to cater to patients who may prefer remote appointments.
He added: ‘What we really needed from this plan was an emphasis on staff retention, and keeping existing doctors in the NHS for longer – not only to treat patients, but to also guide and mentor the next generation of healthcare professionals. Expanding medical school places is a good idea, but it takes 10 years to train a GP.
‘Focusing on what can be done now to help support staff is what’s most needed – not pointing the finger at them, and risking driving more away’
According to data obtained by Labour through freedom of information (FOI) requests, 2.8 million patients have experienced their practice closing down or merging in the past five years.
Labour highlighted NHS Digital figures which showed there are 1,200 fewer GP practices than in 2015 and the the GP workforce has decreased by more than 2,000 in the same period.
However, Labour’s figures included practices that had merged without a surgery closing. Pulse’s major Lost Practices investigation last year showed that just under 500 practices had closed for good since 2013, affecting around 1.5 million patients.
The party also cited appointment figures showing that around 30% of appointments are not delivered face-to-face.
Labour’s response to these figures and focus on boosting face-to-face appointments elicited some backlash from GPs on Twitter.
Dr Margaret McCartney, a GP in Glasgow, said: ‘This stuff is heartbreaking. Does Wes Streeting think that people should be forced to come in face to face to speak to a doctor for a few minutes for something that could have been done more conveniently on the phone?
‘The judgement on a broken profession is staggering.’
In January, Wes Streeting said he wants to ‘tear up’ the ‘murky, opaque’ GP contract, while considering abolishing the GP partnership model in favour of a salaried service.
The opposition party also floated the idea of patients self-referring to secondary care, so that GPs could focus on caring for patients rather than administrative work.