Doctors struggling to carry out “five-day NHS service” amid warnings number of patients needing treatment has reached breaking point

File photo of GP checking a patient's blood pressure. Picture Press Association.

File photo of GP checking a patient's blood pressure. Picture Press Association. - Credit: PA

The message from GP leaders comes after prime minister Theresa May said GPs must extend opening hours to give patients appointments at evenings and weekends.

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Our analysis found that just one surgery in the region is currently offering the opening hours demanded by Mrs May, raising questions about the government's ability to honour its 'seven-day NHS pledge'.

But the Department of Health has repeated that all patients will have access to GP appointments in evenings and weekends by 2020.

Background

Doctors reacted angrily when, at the weekend, a Downing Street source said a large number of surgeries are not providing access that patients need – and that patients are then forced to go to A&E for medical help.

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The claim followed a report by the National Audit Office, which – based on October 2015 figures – showed 46pc of GP surgeries closed at some point during core hours (8am-6.30pm), and 18pc closed at or before 3pm on at least one weekday.

The government wants all surgeries to be open between 8am-8pm every day unless a lack of demand is proven.

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In our region, as well as across England, most surgeries are open between 8am-6.30pm – with many offering evening appointments up to 8pm at least once a week.

But just a minority of surgeries are open at the weekend – and even then only on a Saturday morning.

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And our analysis found only one facility in the region offering appointments between 8am-8pm on Saturday and Sunday.

It comes after the number of patients per GP has leapt 7pc up to 1,600 in the last three years in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire.

Reaction

The government's message at the weekend has prompted a strong reaction from the leaders of Norfolk and Waveney Local Medical Committee (LMC).

In a letter to this newspaper, Tim Morton and Ian Hume wrote: 'We can only ascribe these ill-thought out comments to a political attempt to distract the public from the real debate about future funding of the health and social care sectors.'

Dr Morton, the LMC's chairman, later said the government should focus on creating a robust weekday service and 'proper investment in out-of-hours primary care'.

'What was said at the weekend provoked so much anger from LMC members,' he said.

'There aren't enough of us [GPs].

'If Theresa May wants us to be open 8am-8pm every day she firstly needs to show there is a need, and secondly that there is enough resource – both financial and workforce.

'One in three practices is carrying vacancies. We're struggling to carry out a five-day service and I would rather we improved that first.'

Department of Health responds

In a statement to this newspaper the government said GPs work 'incredibly hard'.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said 'GPs work incredibly hard and we are investing in primary care precisely to relieve pressure on the frontline – with an extra £2.4bn of funding, 5,000 more doctors in general practice and 1,500 more pharmacists in surgeries by 2020.

'Evidence shows that extended GP access is helping to relieve pressure on other parts of the health service such as A&E, with 17 million patients already benefiting from evening and weekend appointments.

'By 2020 everyone will be able to access routine GP appointments at evenings and weekends.'

GP appointments at evenings and weekends are a key part of health minister Jeremy Hunt's aim of delivering a 'seven-day NHS'.

One surgery in the region provides appointments every day of the week

Only one GP surgery in the region offers appointments between 8am-8pm every day of the week.

The surgery at Norwich Practices Health Centre, on Rouen Road, in Norwich, is the sole GP service that provides appointments in line with the Conservatives' vision for the NHS.

But Steve Bloomfield, business manager of the centre, said this is due to a special contract which the centre holds with NHS England. He said a 'significant number' of evening appointments are taken up by non-urgent patients.

Those patients are unlikely to end up in A&E if the evening appointment isn't available.

Mr Bloomfield said: 'The difficulty that most GP practices have is the GPs there work the hours they have been contracted which are usually between 9am-6pm.

'Nationally there's a major shortage of GPs which is a big problem.

'Quite a few are nearing retirement and we face a very significant number of GPs leaving.

'If you're approaching 60 as a GP you will have got a reasonable pension so would you rather scale down or work lots of more hours?'

Mr Bloomfield believes more GP practices will work closer together to offer the 8am-8pm service between them, rather than each surgery extending its opening hours.

The health centre also hosts a walk-in centre, which is open between 7am-9pm every day.

Union writes to Theresa May accusing her of 'scapegoating' doctors

The British Medical Association (BMA) has accused ministers of trying to 'scapegoat' doctors rather than address the funding crisis in the NHS.

Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the BMA's council, said in a letter to Theresa May: ''I have been horrified to see the position which you have taken in responding to the current crisis in the NHS in England.

'In playing down what is happening in hospitals up and down the country – with beds at full capacity, daily breaches in A&E, and critical operations being cancelled – and in then seeking to lay the blame on general practice, your government appears to be seeking deliberately to distract from what is really happening in the NHS. 'The continual salami slicing, the presentation of cuts as improvements in the face of palpably deteriorating services, and the scapegoating of those who work in the service have led to this situation, one in which patients' lives and well-being are at risk.

Last week Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA GP committee chairman, said GPs were already providing care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

'Much of the pressure on A&E has nothing to do with general practice: it has to do with seriously ill patients for whom seeing a GP would not prevent a hospital admission,' he said.

Have you waited long for a GP appointment? Email nicholas.carding@archant.co.uk

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