Health secretary Sajid Javid has blamed a lack of GP appointments for increased pressure on A&E departments.
Speaking at a hearing by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, Mr Javid told committee member Laura Trott MP it is ‘correct’ that the ‘lack of availability of GP appointments has led to increased pressure on emergency departments’.
Referring to analysis by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Ms Trott said: ‘The point that the [College] were making was… that lack of availability of GP appointments has led to increased pressure on emergency departments.’
Mr Javid agreed: ‘Yes, I think that general point is correct.’
Ms Trott also asked if Mr Javid thought that a rise in face-to-face appointments would help reduce the increasing demand on emergency departments.
Mr Javid said: ‘I think as we get more and more access to primary care, that will certainly help with demand in A&E, and more generally emergency care.’
He told the committee yesterday: ‘I want to share with you a statistic… I’m trying to recall. I’ll refrain from sharing it but I can tell you there is a significant portion of people that are turning up for emergency care when they could have actually gone to their GP. And that is not the fault of those people at all, they have stayed away from the NHS when they were asked to, they now want to be seen and it is right.
‘I want people to come forward for the care that they need, but part of the reason I think people are turning up at A&E, perhaps when they don’t need it, is because they’re not able to get through to their primary care services in the usual way.
He added that the Government would ‘be setting out more around our winter planning in terms of the pressures we see’, including ‘increasing the capacity of the 111 service’.
In a statement responding to the comments, RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall pointed out that GPs are actually currently seeing more patients than before the Covid pandemic.
And he added: ‘Reasons for mounting pressures on A&E are many, but we’re unaware of any hard evidence that significantly links them to GP access. Far from intensifying pressures on emergency departments, GPs and our teams make the vast majority of NHS patient contacts and in doing so our service alleviates pressures elsewhere in the health service, including A&E.
‘General practice needs to be sufficiently resourced and supported, so that it can continue to do so. The Government needs to make good on its promise of 6,000 more GPs and 26,000 more members of the practice team – as well as introducing measures to tackle “undoable” workload in general practice.’
The news comes as the BMA has warned that a new NHS England campaign promoting 111 online for urgent care will place extra burden on GPs this winter.
The campaign encourages the use of 111 online but says patients should still come forward to a pharmacist, GP or call 111 if they need urgent advice.
Dr Simon Walsh, deputy chair of the BMA consultants committee, said: ‘The effect of NHS 111 on numbers of attendances at emergency departments is variable and for every person triaged away from an emergency department, that’s a GP, a mental health worker or community nurse, for example, that needs to be there to give our patients the care they deserve – vital staff the NHS simply doesn’t have enough of.
‘And of course, the problem remains even if staff are relocated; not to mention the immense exhaustion many are already going through, having worked the pandemic without adequate respite.’
The health select committee hearing also heard Mr Javid agree with NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard that there is no ‘right number’ of face-to-face consultations that GP practices should be aiming for, as this is likely to vary depending on patient populations.
Elsewhere, a Conservative MP has argued GPs should be given cash incentives for seeing patients face to face, to alleviate demand on the NHS this winter.
Otherwise, there’s a risk that more people will present at A&E because they cannot be seen in person, said Joy Morrissey.