GP aims to bring real world experience to Westminster

GP Dr Sarah Wollaston looks parliament-bound at the next election. Jonn Elledge asks the Conservative candidate for Totnes in Devon what she will bring to the table.

Dr Sarah Wollaston
Dr Sarah Wollaston

After more than a decade in parliament, GP and MP Dr Howard Stoate is off.

The Labour MP for Dartford in Kent since 1997, Dr Stoate said he felt new rules on MPs' outside interests would force him to give up his medical practice. (The fact he has a majority of just 700 is purely coincidental.)

But his role as the Commons' resident practising GP looks unlikely to go unfilled. And, in a sign of the political times, Dr Stoate's replacement could be a Tory.

'People like the idea that politicians have a link with real life,' says Dr Sarah Wollaston, a Devon GP and the woman almost certain to be the next MP for Totnes. 'And there's nothing like general practice to keep you in touch with people's lives.'

This life experience seems to have struck a chord with the electorate. Dr Wollaston was selected in Britain's first 'open primary', a US-style election in which the voters of Totnes picked the party's candidate.

In a move many commentators saw as a revolt against the political classes, she beat two professional politicians to the finish line to do so.

Royal college links
Dr Wollaston is determined to keep one foot in the real world if, as seems likely, the safe Tory seat sends her to Westminster next year. She says she hopes to do enough sessions to keep up her registration, and stay on as an RCGP examiner, to ensure parliamentary links with the royal colleges.

But, she says, she will not be keeping up her current practice. 'It's impractical to think you can be both GP and MP,' she says. 'You end up doing both badly.'

Dr Wollaston's political ambitions are a recent development. She qualified at Guy's Hospital in London in 1986, and started her career in paediatric medicine. But she soon realised the error of her ways and moved to Bristol for GP training.

Over the next two decades she built up a portfolio career, including a stint as a forensic medical examiner, roles in education and examining, and a position as a part-time partner at the Chagford Medical Centre. It was the successful campaign to save the district hospital at nearby Moretonhampstead that first brought her into politics.

She says she has always had conservative leanings - 'It'd be wrong to stand for a political party without broadly agreeing with its principles,' she says - but had never been a party member. The Tories' pledge to save community hospitals inspired her to join up - and Conservative leader David Cameron's attempts to attract more 'normal' people to politics convinced her to run.

Despite being new to the game, much of what Dr Wollaston says would fit seamlessly in a health speech by a Tory front-bencher. Like her new leaders, she is critical of Labour not because it poured so much money into the health service, but because she believes it was spent so badly. The repeated theme during our brief conversation is waste.

Take her thoughts on extended hours: Dr Wollaston describes it as 'inevitable' that demand would grow for weekend and evening surgeries.

'We have to be more responsive to what patients want,' she says. 'It's quite reasonable for them to want to be able to contact their doctor on a Saturday.'

Tick-box culture
But she is not just critical of the sledgehammer approach ministers took to last year's contract negotiations; she is also furious because 'the GMS contract was a wasted opportunity' to address the issue.

The QOF (another 'wasted opportunity') gets a similar blasting. She praises GPs' success in scoring so impressively. But she worries the framework has created a 'tick-box culture', in which GPs are guided not by their professional judgement but by a government form.

'If it can't be counted then it doesn't count,' she says. 'That is not great care.'

She refuses to be drawn on exactly how to reform QOF, however. She is much clearer on what Labour has got wrong than what the Tories will get right.

Independent management
Many of the policies discussed in recent months are just 'ideas we'd like to look at', she says. The party will farm day-to-day management of the NHS out to an independent board, which may choose to go in a different direction altogether. 'There's probably nothing set in stone.'

One thing, at least, she is sure of - practices should take on more partners. 'We're starting to become a two-tier profession,' she warns. 'I don't think that's in anyone's interests.'

And how does she respond to those GPs who, after four years with no pay rise, are reluctant to see their profits diluted further? 'There are more things to consider than income.'

That is fortunate indeed - because, with recession rife and the public finances in their current state, a GP pay rise is looking increasingly unlikely. The profession will need to be 'realistic' about how much money there is in the pot, she warns.

'But I do think at the moment GP income isn't bad,' she adds. 'We need to get away from the clocking-off mentality creeping into the profession.'

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