In 1966 the BMA was able to obtain undated letters of resignation from all 23,000 GPs, who threatened to go back to private practice. With this powerful negotiating tool, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Cabinet conceded to the BMA. The GP Charter was agreed upon, which became the Red Book, the basis of modern general practice.
However with a growing and demanding patient population and GP on calls 24/7, NHS GPs of the 1990s were getting desperate. In 2003 the GPC was mandated to negotiate a new contract. BMA allowed a ballot on the new GMS (nGMS) contract to be open to all GPs. The majority of GMS GPs were against the nGMS contract but were outvoted by GPs who would not be affected. However most did see a rise in income (though not matching PMS) and opted out of OOHs.
Since 2004, the pressure on GPs has increased exponentially. The loss of MPIG and QOF income, GP premise costs hike, reduction of GP partner drawings four years in a row, workload increases, consultation rates as high as 12 per patient per year (up from 3.5 in 2004), a consumer culture, increasingly onerous micromanagement (20 bodies or mechanisms whereby a GP or practice may be assessed, criticised and/or punished), withdrawal of occupational health support for GPs, pressure to deliver 7/7 8-8 extended access and dumping from secondary care, have all led GPs to emigrate, take voluntary early retirement, give up their partnerships, burn out, and suffer mental health crises.
The proportion of NHS funding spent on general practice has fallen to an all-time low. Practices in my area, London, are closing because of financial unviability. Alas, the profession is fragmented into sessionals, PMS and GMS GPs (unlike 1966).
A BMA ballot on mass resignation would be the opening salvo in a war. An overwhelming vote in favour would force the BMA and GPC into action.
Many GPs have begun to question whether the time is right to start charging for appointments. This needn’t bankrupt poor patients. If the NHS became fully privatised, the public may pay 100% without provision of state insurance for the poor and elderly. But many UK GPs have gone to work under the Australian system, which has a social insurance scheme the UK could copy.
Medicare reimburses 85% of the cost of a GP appointment and patients pay just 15% – that’s $36 from Medicare and $13 from the patient for a basic GP consultation. An overwhelming vote in favour of a system this like would convince DH that we have the stomach for a fight – otherwise we give them carte blanche to carry on decimating GP morale and workforce.
I call upon the spirit of 1966 to return before it is too late. At over a million consultations a day, UK GPs have been flogged as cheap labour.
We are no longer doormats to risk our wellbeing and livelihood for £3/patient consultation, nor must patients suffer. Time to regain our self-respect before the job kills us and demand industrial action for a new contract, a 21st-century contract, one that allows GPs to transition into semiprivate GPs to treat both the poor and the wealthy side by side.
Dr Una Coales ia a GP in south London and BMA Council member