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No point funding seven-day GP appointments if no uptake, NHS chief admits

GP practices should not be expected to open at weekends if there is no demand for it, the head of the NHS in England has conceded under questioning from MPs.

Grilled about the poor uptake of Sunday appointments in pilots of the Government’s flagship seven-day access scheme, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said practices should not be forced to open ‘if there is not a need or uptake’ for routine appointments.

Mr Stevens made the comments in a Commons Health Committee hearing this morning, after Dr Philippa Whitford, MP for Central Ayrshire, quoted Pulse’s investigation revealing that a quarter of the Prime Minister’s flagship seven-day access pilots have dropped Sunday opening because of lack of demand.

Mr Stevens responded that ‘we’ve got to shape that based on where there is need and there is uptake’.

He added: ‘If there is not a need or uptake for particular modes or times, then obviously that’s not where we’re going to put all our eggs.’   

However, Mr Stevens insisted routine seven-day access remained part of the solution to relieving pressure on acute A&E services.

He said evidence from the first wave of the GP access fund, or Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund, showed that increasing routine GP access ‘does reduce the attendance rates in A&E departments’.

And he added that while improvements in urgent care and more seven-day hospital services were needed to reduce avoidable excess hospital mortality at weekends, ‘over and above that, there is this third question of how to ensure people who working during weekdays are still able to access the health service for planned appointments’.

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘It’s good that Simon Stevens is listening to our concerns and recognising that widespread roll out of routine seven-day GP services is neither needed nor wanted in many areas. It’s also questionable as to whether it is the right thing to do anywhere when there are far greater priorities facing the NHS and social care.’

Pulse revealed that CCGs were already abandoning the access pilots back in May, because of a lack of demand for weekend appointments and threats to other parts of the service.

However, despite further CCGs giving up on the pilots, health secretary Jeremy Hunt reiterated plans for seven-day services last week in a speech where he also said he would impose weekend working in the junior consultants’ contract.

Mr Hunt, who has exerienced a backlash from doctors following the speech, also said he had ‘yet to meet’ one who does not want to move to seven-day working.