Boost GP capacity now to avoid patient care crisis, MPs warn government

The government must take urgent action to expand GP capacity and ease pressure on primary care, MPs have warned - citing fears that a broken GP service could block the ‘crucial gateway’ to NHS care.

Portcullis House
Portcullis House, Westminster (Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images)

Expanding the number of GP training places, easing ‘spiralling workloads’ on those already in the job, and securing adequate investment for GP premises were among measures suggested by MPs to support general practice in a House of Commons debate.

MPs argued that further action was ‘desperately needed’ to address staff shortages, while they said greater efforts were required to encourage those who had retired early back into the profession.

The warning comes as LMCs told GPonline this week that an increasing number of practices were reporting extremely high levels of workload - with one chief executive warning staff will ‘start walking’ after the pandemic due to unsustainable pressure.

GP workload

Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet Theresa Villiers, who introduced the debate, told the House of Commons that GPs were under ‘immense pressure’, admitting that the number of new GPs entering the profession was not keeping pace with current levels of demand.

She said that red tape and tick-box exercises were holding GPs back and called on the government to come good on its promise of cutting bureaucracy to free up GP capacity. She warned that a failure to offer adequate support to general practice risked undermining the rest of the NHS.

‘In GP surgeries, as is the case across the NHS, demand has spiralled partly because, as we grow older as a population, we have greater healthcare needs, partly because of pent-up demand from people who felt reluctant to seek help during the pandemic,' she said.

‘Pressure on GP surgeries is leading to appointment delays, which will only generate yet higher numbers of people showing up at accident and emergency departments that are already busier than at any time in the history of our national health service.'

Healthcare system

Ms Villiers added: 'GP services are a crucial gateway to treatment by other parts of the health service. If this gateway gets blocked up, the consequence will be that lives are lost, for example to cancer, because symptoms were not picked up early enough. So this matter is not just one of convenience; it is a matter of ensuring that we are doing everything we can to deliver the best healthcare.’

The north London MP also spoke about the importance of reducing current workload pressures on those in the job to boost retention, in addition to creating more spaces for medical students to be able to train as GPs.

She said: ‘It is essential that we expand the capacity of training places for GPs, and I welcome the new medical schools and the progress that has been made. However, because it takes years to train up a professional, the effect of those developments is not yet being felt in local surgeries.

‘We need to ensure that the NHS visa scheme is used effectively to recruit skilled GPs from around the world in order to meet immediate pressures, and we have to get better at retaining the GPs that we have. A vital first step in doing that is to implement measures to relieve the stresses on GPs that I have spoken about and to address spiralling workloads.’

Winter support package

Responding to demands on the government to increase work around supporting the profession, health minister Maria Caulfield said the government already had multiple initiatives in progress.

Improving telephone access to surgeries at no additional cost to practices was one of the measures she said the government was taking to improve access, adding that it had already provided a £250m winter support package to help GPs make improvements to their premises or recruit extra staff.

‘We owe a huge amount of gratitude to general practice staff for their efforts throughout the pandemic, stepping up to run vaccination programmes, continuing with flu vaccinations, looking after housebound patients and continuing their day-to-day work. They have been absolutely outstanding,’ she said.

A report by MPs last week warned that government plans to clear the NHS backlog triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic could fail unless it 'wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis' facing the health service.

RCGP chair Professor Martin Martin warned this month that the profession was working 'at its limits' and has called on the government to deliver on its promises to general practice of delivering 6,000 GPs and 26,000 additional primary care staff by 2024. However, the government has admitted it is not on track to meet the GP recruitment target - and the RCGP has warned that the 26,000 additional roles also look unlikely to be delivered.

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