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PM’s seven-day GP pilot drastically reduces Sunday opening amid ‘frequently empty’ appointments



Exclusive A pilot given £1m by the Prime Minister’s fund to increase weekend access has already scrapped Sunday appointments due to a lack of demand, Pulse can reveal.

Although the pilot in Hertfordshire and the south Midlands was aimed at offering GP appointments from 8am to 8pm seven days a week, Pulse can reveal that the the pilot has drastically reduced Sunday opening times following ‘an assessment of appointment utilisation’.

The news comes just days after Prime Minister David Cameron renewed his pledge to extend NHS access across seven days, starting with GP services.

Pulse has previously revealed that NHS Canterbury and Coastal CCG had dropped their pilot, funded by winter money, after it failed to reduce hospital pressures.

But this is the first known example of a so-called ‘Challenge Fund’ pilot cutting back on weekend access, as NHS England has extended the funding to the first-wave GP access pilots to allow for a ‘fuller analysis.

The Watford Care Alliance, formed by 11 practices, has been offering seven-day opening jointly via two hub practices, commissioned by NHS Herts Valley CCG, after being selected for the first wave of the Prime Ministers’ GP seven-day access pilots.

According to CCG papers, the area received £794,620 from the £50 million fund, which it said would pay for an extra 16,000 GP appointments per year.

But speaking at the LMCs Conference in London last week, Hertfordshire LMC vice chair Dr Sarah Khan said that the appointments on Sundays had been ‘frequently empty’ and they had therefore been cut.

She said: ‘In our patch Hertfordshire we have had the Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund pilots. Despite the pressures and despite an excellent out-of-hours service and widespread extended hours, GPs in my area have been providing 8-8 appointments seven days a week.

‘And guess what? The appointments on Sundays would be frequently empty, to the extent that they are now no longer being provided.

Di Pegg, head of primary care for NHS England in Central Midlands, told Pulse: ‘Patients in Hertfordshire are able to book Sunday appointments between 9am and 1pm and these can be accessed either by making an appointment or calling to NHS 111.

‘These appointments are popular with patients and there are no plans to discontinue them, though recently the hours on Sundays were reduced from 8am to 8pm following an assessment of appointment utilisation with the aim of making the pilot service more sustainable in the longer term.’

The scheme was highlighted as a success by NHS England earlier this year, when a spokesperson told Pulse that ‘in Watford, the local patient survey reports that 16% of patients would have accessed A&E or out-of-hours provision if the extended hours service wasn’t open’.

But, according to Dr Khan, the Government’s seven-day access plans were ‘a risk to patient safety’ as it ‘spreads GPs too thinly’.

Her sentiment mirrored that of GPC chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul, who in an emotive speech to the LMCs Conference told politicians that they must ‘jettison pipe dreams’ of seven-day access.

NHS England announced the expansion of seven-day opening pilots to 1,400 more GP practices in March this year after the Government announced a £100 million second wave of funding last autumn.