Health secretary expects patients to get GP appointments 'within two weeks'

·4-min read

Patients will be expected to get an appointment with their GP within two weeks under plans to be unveiled by the health secretary on Thursday.

Therese Coffey will tell the Commons that patients with the most urgent problems should also be seen on the same day, as part of a drive to improve access to doctors' appointments.

The government will not put an official target in place and there will not be recourse for patients if practices don't stick to the expectation placed on them. Ms Coffey told the BBC: "It isn't about being overly prescriptive from Whitehall about exactly how a GP will run their practice".

But she has promised to "lift some of the burdens that exist in GP practices" to help meet the timeframe through recruiting extra support staff, including GP assistants and advanced nurse practitioners, to enable GPs to focus on seeing patients - claiming the move will free up one million appointments a year.

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New cloud-based telephone systems will also be installed to help people get through to surgeries more easily - something suggested by her predecessor, Steve Barclay.

The health secretary will tell MPs: "I will put a laser-like focus on the needs of patients, making their priorities my priorities and being a champion for them on the issues that affect them most.

"Our Plan for Patients will make it easier to get a general practice appointment and we will work tirelessly to deliver that, alongside supporting our hardworking GP teams.

"We know this winter will be tough and this is just the first step in our work to bolster our valued NHS and social care services so people can get the care they need."

But the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, told Sky News the solutions being put forward by Ms Coffey were "barely sticking plasters", saying: "After 12 years of this, it's clear the longer the conservatives are in power, the longer patients will wait."

And one body which represents health trusts in England and Wales said the measures "will not come close" to solving wait times and the body representing GPs said it is "not a plan".

'New ambitions'

As part of her plan, Ms Coffey will appeal to the public to take part in a "national endeavour" to support health and social care, urging volunteers who came forward during the Covid pandemic to offer up their services again.

She will also enable pharmacies to manage and supply contraception prescriptions, again freeing up space at surgeries, and will continue to push the message to people to go to pharmacies for minor illnesses or with symptoms, such as coughs, headaches or sore throats.

Another part of the change will see the government start publishing appointment data for each GP practice.

More details will be given in Ms Coffey's Commons statement, but it has the backing of the NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard, who said: "We will work with the government so we can support NHS staff to deliver these new ambitions for patients, underpinned by the development of a long term workforce plan."

However, the Royal College of General Practitioners criticised the proposal, saying it was "not a plan". It said Ms Coffey should have talked to GPs on the front line to understand the challenges before "lumbering a struggling service with more expectations".

Measures 'won't come close' to helping

There is a shortage of over 4,000 full-time equivalent GPs, according to the NHS Confederation.

The organisation, which represents trusts in England and Wales, said it welcomes any support for the "workload and workforces crisis", but added: "These measures will not come close to ensuring patients who need to be seen can be within the timescales set out.

"Also, they will have minimal impact on fixing the current problems that general practice is facing over the winter and could compromise continuity of care for those who need it."

Mr Streeting also told Kay Burley: "Can you believe it? After 12 years in government, they're saying great news, you'll get a GP appointment within a fortnight. We guaranteed GP appointments within 48 hours when we were in government.

"Asking the Conservatives now to fix the crisis in the NHS is a bit like expecting an arsonist to put out the fire. They've caused these problems over the last decade. They don't have the answers.

"And frankly, unless they fix the workforce, challenge recruiting more doctors, more nurses, we're not going to get patients the care they need in a timely way."