Patients struggling to get GP appointments, watchdog finds

Rajeev Syal
A GP checking a patient’s blood pressure. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Patients are struggling to get GP appointments even though a government drive to force surgeries to open for longer is expected to increase costs, parliament’s watchdog has found.

A report by the public accounts committee found there was also “no credible plan” to stem the fall in the number of GPs or to recruit more to meet demand.

On a day when the committee released three reports, it found that many surgeries were closed to patients at times during supposedly core hours of 8am to 6.30pm on weekdays.

Almost half (46%) of practices closed at some point during these core hours, including 18% that closed by 3pm on at least one afternoon a week.

In some areas, 42% of practices closed by 3pm. This forced more patients to turn to A&E, the report said.

NHS England has promised to clamp down on practices that close during core hours, but it collects no data on availability of appointments during these hours.

“Without this information, it cannot know whether practices are offering appointments during core hours to suit working people, such as between 8am and 9am and between 5.30pm and 6.30pm,” the report said.

“Yet it is pressing ahead with plans to extend access in the evenings and at weekends to meet the needs of this working population,” it added.

A Conservative spokesman said: “Theresa May has been clear that she wants to see extended opening hours across the country – none of which could happen with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, propped up by a coalition of chaos that can’t invest in the NHS.”

MPs on the same committee also found that delays in handing ambulance patients to A&E departments were getting worse.

Transferring patients from an ambulance to A&E should take no longer than 15 minutes but just 58% of transfers were completed within this time in 2015/16, it said. This compares with 80% in 2010/11.

Such delays affect patient care and stop paramedics getting back on the road to attend to other patients, MPs said.

A third report from the committee found that a £1.5bn fund set up to help reduce emergency admissions and speed up transfers of care is “little more than a complicated ruse to transfer money from health to local government”.

Ministers had claimed that the better care fund would save money, reduce emergency admissions to hospitals and reduce the number of days people remain stuck in hospital unnecessarily.

Since then the fund has failed to achieve any objectives, the committee said.

Officials “displayed an appallingly casual attitude to the targets that had been set” for reducing emergency admissions and delayed transfers of care, both of which have actually increased, MPs concluded.

The damning verdict comes after Theresa May signalled on Tuesday that she would unveil another plan for social care in the Conservative manifesto.

In a campaign speech in south Wales, the prime minister said her team had been working on a “long-term solution” to the problem of paying for the needs of an ageing population.

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