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Ms May, your attack on GPs reeks of dead cat

It was a classic ‘dead cat’; one of the oldest PR tricks in the book. When in the midst of a flurry of negative news headlines, throw something on the table that stinks so much that it diverts discussion elsewhere.

Congratulations Prime Minister your dead cat certainly does stink

I can imagine how the meeting last Friday on the crisis in A&E departments in Number 10 went. ‘Prime Minister the old “Crisis? What crisis?” routine is wearing thin, we need something to change the narrative.’

So, the weekend’s newspapers were full of threats from Theresa May’s team that GPs were putting A&E departments under pressure as they were ‘failing to meet their commitments to keeping surgeries open longer’.

Practices would ‘lose funding’ if did not open 8 ‘til 8 seven days a week, unless they could demonstrate that the demand was not there. ‘Most GPs do a fantastic job, and have their patients’ interests firmly at heart,’ begins the statement. ‘However, it is increasingly clear that a large number of surgeries are not providing the access that patients need – and that patients are suffering as a result.’

There is so much wrong with that statement that I don’t know where to start. But I will.

Firstly, the whole premise that GP practices not opening seven days are somehow ‘not co-operating’ with the Government is completely wrong. The policy was never meant to be for every practice, as health secretary Jeremy Hunt said recently to Pulse that they were not ‘asking every practice to open seven days a week’ but is rather ‘looking for solutions to be offered by a network of practices’. And – for good or ill – a third of the country is now covered by these seven-day networks funded by a five-year programme set up by Ms May’s predecessor David Cameron. If she does not think this is moving quickly enough then perhaps she should look closer to home for the culprit and dig into her pocket for some more cash. 

Secondly, pilots of these schemes showed patients had better things to do on a Sunday and did not attend GP appointments, so if she is going to bang on about ‘patient’s interests’ then perhaps six-, rather than seven-day services are the answer. But having said that when we are looking at lengthening waiting times for appointments in core hours, just telling GPs to ‘do more’ is not really going to cut it.

Thirdly, official evaluations of the pilots have shown that seven-day GP access can reduce A&E attendances – by 14% on average – but it has no effect on on either emergency admissions or out-of-hours services and costs massively more. A recent report from Government auditors showed, extended hours cost 50% more than provision in core hours. Seven-day GP access will cost over £1.5bn by 2020. It this really value for money?

Lastly, Ms May’s government is scapegoating GP practices when it has miserably failed to uphold its own end of the bargain. It promised 5,000 extra GPs by 2020 and this year managed a few hundred more GP trainees and returners, but hardly the numbers needed to hit this target and staff those weekend and evening clinics. A Pulse analysis last year showed it will miss its target by more than half and the sheer folly of this recent attack – sanctioned by Ms May herself – is that it will make it much harder for her to extend access.

Her sacrificial moggy may have served its function this weekend, but the longer-term damage to GP morale will be much greater. For short-term political gain, Ms May has pushed many more GPs towards the exit door.

So congratulations Prime Minister your dead cat certainly does stink. But not for the reasons you think it does and perhaps for longer than you intended.

Nigel Praities is editor of Pulse