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Practices can shut early on Christmas Eve as NHS England makes ‘U-turn’

Exclusive GPs and staff will be allowed to leave early on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, after NHS England revised its guidance on the long-running saga.

In a letter to practice managers dated 5 November 2015 seen by Pulse, NHS England said that practices could ‘close doors’ early over the holiday period if they ensured that care provided during core hours was ‘appropriate to meet the reasonable needs of patients’.

The ‘minimum’ this would involve would be an answerphone message directing patients to an out-of-hours service that the practice had made an agreement with beforehand.

The move has been welcomed by GP leaders and hailed as a ’U-turn’ on previous guidance on holiday opening hours.

It comes as Pulse has learned that a practice issued with a breach notice for closing early in 2013 has won its legal battle to have the notice overturned.

NHS England’s new stance represents a reversal of its previous policy.

Its head of primary care, Dr David Geddes, wrote to all area teams in 2013 to insist that it was ‘non-negotiable’ that GP practices open for their full core hours on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, warning that practices that decided to close within core hours could be served with breach of contract notices.

But the new letter, written by Ginny Hope, head of primary care at NHS England South, said of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve: ‘As a minimum, you will need to have a system in place so that patients can access GP services, including urgent care, either by ringing the surgery [and either] being able to talk directly to a clinician [or receiving] an answerphone message signposting the patient to an on-call GP for the practice.’

Dr Robert Morley, chair of the GPC’s contracts and regulations subcommittee, said he had been told the revised holiday opening guidance applied to all practices across England.

He said: ’NHS England has had to do a U-turn, that’s the key message. NHS England has been persuaded by the BMA argument and has accepted what the contractual obligations actually are.

‘There is no contractual obligation for practices to remain open as long as they put in arrangements to deal with emergencies.’

Londonwide LMCs director Dr Tony Grewal, who supported the 11 practices taking legal action against breach notices imposed for closing early, said: ‘We have seen the generic guidance on this from NHS England and they seem to have taken a commonsense view.’

The relaxation of the guidance comes weeks after one of the 11 practices in London had its appeal against a breach notice for early closure over the Christmas holidays in 2013 upheld.

Dr Morley told Pulse: ’One of the practices served with a breach notice has been successful. Each practice was served notices under different circumstances so this doesn’t mean that everyone will win but it has set a precedent.’

Dr Grewal confirmed: ‘There has been a successful appeal against breach notices.’