Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has formally given backing to his shadow health secretary’s reforms to effectively nationalise GP services.
Wes Streeting’s proposals to make general practitioners salaried NHS employees have been criticised in some quarters of the medical profession.
But Sir Keir, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, said that “if we don’t get real about reform, the NHS will die”, giving his backing to overhauling the current GP model.
The pledges have echoes of New Labour’s 1997 promises, when Sir Tony Blair swept into power on the back of a manifesto vowing to slash NHS waiting times and make the service more patient-focused.
Sir Keir used his article to outline a series of reforms that a future Labour government would introduce.
They included getting rid of “bureaucratic nonsense” to allow patients to bypass GPs and self-refer themselves to specialists.
He also backed gradually “phasing in a new system” for GPs, turning family doctors into direct NHS employees.
The current model sees self-employed GPs run their own practices under contracts awarded by the NHS.
But the Opposition leader said it was time to accept that the system needed overhauling, with the pressure on GP surgeries causing more people to resort to attending hospital instead.
Sir Keir suggested young doctors were not keen on taking on the “burdens and liabilities” of the current system as older GPs leave the workforce.
“As GPs retire and those contracts are handed back, I want to phase in a new system that sees GPs fairly rewarded within the NHS, working much more closely with other parts of the system,” he said.
“Not everyone will want to hear this – but it is the direction we need to go in.”
The comments chime with arguments made by Mr Streeting in recent weeks on the need for NHS reform.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast last week, the shadow cabinet member said the “front door to the NHS is broken”, declaring that “more than two million people waited more than a month back in October to see a GP”.
He said that “increasingly, people coming into general practice now prefer to be salaried” and that by 2026, they will be the majority.
Labour’s proposals come against a backdrop of winter pressures on the NHS and industrial action by nurses and ambulance workers.
Last week, figures showed the proportion of patients seen within four hours in England’s A&Es fell to a record low of 65% in December.
Sir Keir also said Labour would look to free up medical professional time by removing “mundane inconveniences and inefficiencies” that end up “resulting in a mind-boggling waste of time”.
Such improvements, he suggested, should include those with back problems being able to self-refer to physios — a policy that is currently being trialled by some trusts.