Thousands of GP practices are under threat of closure, with 7,500 surgeries to become 1,500 “superhubs” under Government plans to expand opening times.
Patients groups last night expressed alarm after a junior health minister revealed moves to turn small practices into giant clinics.
David Mowat told MPs: “We are finding that things are working better with GP practices being put into hubs of 35,000 to 40,000 people. “They are able to employ pharmacists and physios and do more things at scale than they could as a single GP practice or as a practice of two or three GPs, which has historically been the norm,”
“We are migrating over time from a position where we have 7,500 GP practices to one with something more like 1,500 super-hubs,” the minister said.
The drive is part of efforts to improve access to GPs at evenings and weekends, under a manifesto pledge to offer all patients appointments between 8am and 8pm seven days a week.
But last night patients’ groups said the plans were “alarming” and would force too many vulnerable patients to travel further.
More than 550 GP surgeries have closed in England since 2012, with remaining surgeries expanding to take thousands more patients. The average list size has risen by 18 per cent in a decade, official statistics show.
Health officials last night insisted the plans would not necessarily mean closures, and said some “superhubs” would simply mean groups of GPs working together.
But several areas have already drawn up plans to close practices. In Dorset, officials recently drew up proposals to reduce the number of GP locations from 131 to as few as 36.
Following a public outcry and warnings from local councillors that the measures were “devastating,” the clinical commissioning group denied it plans to close practices.
Officials said local GPs would be free to take their own decisions though it would be difficult for practices to survive if they did not evolve.
Joyce Robins, from Patient Concern, raised fears that vulnerable patients would receive worse care, and be forced to travel long distances.
“It is alarming,” she said. “We have already seen hundreds of practices close, and these “superhubs” are not what the public wants or needs.”
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chairman of the Royal College of GPs, warned against the plans.
“Our population is growing and changing, with our patients living longer and increasingly with multiple, long term conditions, so we certainly need to explore and adopt different ways of working in order to best deal with these changes - but the magnitude and pace of the change being floated here seems extreme,” she said.
Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee said: “The connection that local GPs have with ptaients is one of things patients value most highly - we break that at our peril.”
A Department of Health spokesman said decisions would be taken by local NHS bodies and that it was impossible to say whether surgeries would close or not.
"Hubs are not surgery closures - that has never been this Government's policy intention, and we are supporting general practice with a 14 per cent real terms increase in funding,” he said.
“Many GP surgeries are already working together to support larger populations.”
In October, health officials in Yorkshire and Humber sparked anger after telling GPs that those which were not willing or able to “transform appropriately” must be allowed to “fail and wither” and would not receive support from NHS England.
It followed a series of closures of practices in other parts of the country after funding from NHS funding was cut.