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Long-term NHS plan must include funds for GP expansion, says health secretary

The long-term funding plan for the NHS must have earmarked funding for boosting primary care capacity, the health secretary has said.

Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons Liaison Committee in March that a ‘multiyear’ funding settlement would replace the current ‘annual approach’ and ‘top ups’ to the NHS budget.

But, amid reports that an announcement on the plan is now imminent, Jeremy Hunt told the NHS Confed 2018 conference that negotiations on the funding settlement with the Prime Minister are ‘difficult but ongoing’.

He went on to say that if the plan was agreed, it had to ensure funding was not just used for hospitals.

Speaking yesterday afternoon, Mr Hunt said: ‘I think one of the lessons of the last five years is we found that when we have pressures in the acute sector they tend to suck in the resources that then denudes transformation funding and transformation plans.

‘So if we get a sustainable long-term settlement, we need to find a way of making sure that transformation funding is protected and that we really do have a structured programme to increase the capacity of primary care. I think that is the only way that we are going to deal with this issue.’

Responding to a Parliamentary question last week, health minister Stephen Barclay said no decisions had been made as yet regarding what share of the long-term funding settlement would go towards general practice.

He said: ‘The Government will bring forward a long-term plan this year, in advance of the Spending Review. The Government will work with NHS leaders, clinicians and experts to develop this long-term plan, to ensure that the NHS can cope with the serious demand and cost pressures it faces in the future.

‘No decision has yet been taken on the share of funds to be allocated to general practice under the multi-year financial settlement.’

Meanwhile, Mr Hunt also used yesterday’s conference speech to reiterate regrets regarding workforce planning.

The health secretary admitted that ‘not once’ during the work to boost NHS nursing capacity in line with recommendations in the Francis Report into the Mid Staffs scandal in 2013 had they asked themselves where extra nurses were going to come from.

He said there were now 15,000 more nurses but ‘because this wasn’t planned strategically, we also ended up putting a billion pounds on the agency bill’.

In response, he said ‘every plan’ the Government now sets out has a ‘workforce plan going alongside it’.

And he said the Prime Minister’s announcement that immigration policies for doctors and nurses joining the NHS from overseas would be relaxed was ‘extremely welcome’.

This comes as last week, Mr Hunt confessed that he is ‘struggling to deliver’ his pledge for 5,000 additional GPs by 2020, admitting that ‘it has been harder than we thought’.

Mr Hunt said that while he is not abandoning the ‘very, very important pledge’, it was ‘taking a bit longer than I had hoped’.

This comes after official workforce figures revealed that the NHS has actually lost 1,000 GPs since September 2015, when Hunt first pledged to add at least 10,000 extra primary care staff, including 5,000 GPs, within five years.