No patient should have to wait more than two weeks to see a GP, the new health secretary will demand , in a move that has already been criticised by family doctors.
Thérèse Coffey will on Thursday set out a new “expectation” that everyone seeking an appointment with a GP should get one within 14 days while outlining a major plan to tackle the NHS’s growing crisis.
A drive to speed up patients’ access to GP care in England should also mean more patients with pressing medical concerns being seen on the day they seek a consultation, she will tell MPs.
But the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) accused Coffey – who is also the deputy prime minister – of burdening already hard-pressed GP surgeries with new targets that will not improve care.
Prof Martin Marshall, the college’s chair, said seven out of eight patients – 85% – already got to see a family doctor within two weeks. In addition, 44% were seen on the same day they sought medical help, he added.
“Lumbering a struggling service with more expectations, without a plan as to how to deliver them, will only serve to add to the intense workload and workforce pressures GPs and our teams are facing, whilst also having minimal impact on the care patients receive,” Marshall said.
However, Coffey cannot compel GPs to cap waiting times at two weeks, the Guardian understands. That would require renegotiation by the Department of Health and Social Care of the GP contract it agrees every year with the British Medical Association.
Coffey will set out more details of her ambition when unveiling what she will call “Our Plan For Patients” on Thursday, in her first major appearance since becoming the health and social care secretary in Liz Truss’s government on 6 September.
She will also visit a GP practice and undertake the government’s morning media round to publicise her plan, which is intended to assuage growing public dissatisfaction with the difficulty many patients experience when trying to see a family doctor quickly.
Coffey will also unveil plans to:
• Free up 3m GP appointments a year by pharmacists, physiotherapists and other health professionals, many working in surgeries, seeing more patients.
• Fund better cloud-based telephone systems for practices to help callers get through more quickly.
• Ramp up the number of people with minor ailments seeing high street pharmacists.
• Force all GP surgeries to publish appointments data – a move the RCGP warned could lead to a crude “league table” of performance.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, reminded Coffey that the last Labour government had given patients a right to see a GP within 48 hours – “until the Conservatives scrapped it”.
“The Conservatives promising to solve the difficulties patients face in getting a GP appointment is like the arsonists promising to put out the fire,” he added.
Streeting also said the Conservatives’ forthcoming NHS plan would do little to address the shortage of doctors, nurses and care workers that is fuelling backlogs and workforce discontent.
He said NHS staff were crying out for “a credible workforce plan. They know it won’t be delivered overnight. But at the moment, we’re not seeing any sign of that long-term thinking.”
Beccy Baird, a senior fellow at the King’s Fund health thinktank, warned that the two-week maximum wait risked appearing to be “a quick fix” for the deep-seated problems affecting general practice, especially the declining number of full-time GPs.
“Access to GPs is an issue for patients, but targets aren’t the answer. Having a target for access won’t of itself magic up more GPs or more capacity in the system, which is what it really needs. Only a long-term GP workforce plan will do that.”
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust, said: “The commitment to guarantee an appointment within two weeks may make good politics, but risks applying a one-size-fits-all solution to a significantly more complex picture. Government should step back from micro-managing timescales for appointments and instead focus on the outcomes they want to see in primary care.”
Sources say that Coffey may also announce plans to water down or even scrap the duty on hospital A&E units to treat and admit, discharge or transfer patients within four hours. But one senior NHS figure warned that she would spark “a rumpus” if she abandoned the health service’s best-known performance target, which hospitals have been unable to meet for years.
The NHS Confederation, which represents NHS providers of care in England, urged Coffey to increase funding for social care. That would help get many of the 13,000 “delayed discharge” patients out of hospital – who are medically fit to leave but cannot obtain social care – and help avoid the service facing “a health emergency this winter”, it said.