League tables for GP surgeries as part of £250m package to increase face-to-face appointments

·4-min read

A new package of support for GP surgeries in England will help them "to see more people face-to-face and more promptly", the health secretary has told Sky News, as he defended plans to publish league tables for practices amid claims ministers want to "name and shame" them.

Under the plan to improve access, practices which fail to provide an "appropriate" level of appointments in person will not be eligible for new NHS England funding worth £250m, with league tables ranking how much access surgeries are providing to patients.

Patients will also be able to rate their practice's performance via text message

A&E waiting times of more than 12 hours at record levels as health secretary fails to address GPs - COVID latest

The NHS said the "winter access fund" will allow GPs to improve the availability of appointments and increase the number of face-to-face appointments and same-day care.

Other healthcare workers will be given new powers to provide patients with medical documents like fit-to-work notes or DVLA checks in a bid to free up GPs.

The NHS said GP practices must "respect preferences for face-to-face care unless there are good clinical reasons to the contrary".

People will be able to compare GP practices thanks to appointment data which will be published at practice level by spring to "enhance transparency and accountability", the health service said.

It is not clear how "appropriate levels" of face-to-face care will be defined, but those who do not meet the standard will be offered support to improve.

"Walk-in consultations" could be one of the ways in which practices choose to address the problem.

GP telephone systems will be upgraded to reduce long waits over the phone, social distancing in practices could be changed or reduced, and patients will be able to see nurses, pharmacists and paramedics at GP practices.

Speaking to Kay Burley, Mr Javid said providing "more data, more transparency" would help raise standards.

"It is important that patients have this information because I want to see a levelling up of healthcare throughout the country," he said.

"We do need to understand what the differences are in healthcare provision across the country."

Mr Javid added that GPs had done "phenomenal work" during the COVID-19 pandemic and added: "We want to support them to do what they do best, which is to see patients and to see more patients properly and in a way that the patient chooses."

The health secretary said the measures will "help GPs to see more people face-to-face and more promptly".

He stressed patients should have a choice between in-person appointments and remote consultations, saying: "I believe in choice, I think that's what patients want to see.

"The vast majority of GPs I talk to say that if you can help us to increase capacity, if you can provide us the support, that's also what we want to do.

"I think patients should have a choice, and if some choose that they prefer remote or online versus face-to-face then that absolutely can be right for them."

But Munira Wilson, health spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said the government wants to "name and shame" GPs.

"These changes are a sticking plaster which won't address the GP shortage crisis that is leaving patients struggling to get appointments," she said.

"The Conservatives have already missed their own targets to recruit and train more GPs. Now they are coming up with plans to name and shame GPs, which risks driving even more doctors away from the profession."

When it was put to him by Burley that "naming and shaming" was what the government wants to do, Mr Javid replied: "We have no plans whatsoever for that."

Only 58% of GP appointments in England in August were face-to-face, compared with four in five before the pandemic in August 2019.

The British Medical Association said the plans would not help GPs improve care in the way they had hoped and described the government as "ignorant" to the scale of the crisis.

GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey criticised the "preoccupation" with face-to-face appointments and said a hybrid approach was needed.

"GPs across England will be truly horrified that this is being presented as a lifeline to general practice, when in reality it could sink the ship altogether," he said, warning that a "lack of action" would force many GPs to exit the profession.

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said "good care can and is being delivered remotely and some patients prefer it".

The plans mark a significant change from July last year, when then health secretary Matt Hancock said all initial GP appointments "should be teleconsultations unless there's a compelling clinical reason not to".

Campaign group EveryDoctor, which represents 1,700 UK doctors, said earlier on Wednesday that "it's a bit of a shock" GPs have been "blamed" for the amount of telephone consultations offered to patients when they were just following government guidance.

The NHS's Long Term Plan, published in 2019, proposed that all patients be given a "digital-first" option for accessing GP care.

EveryDoctor also expressed concern that "inflammatory" comments about access to GPs was leading to "abuse" of staff - another issue that will be addressed in the new blueprint through the development of a "zero-tolerance campaign".

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