Challenge Fund access pilots may cost £1bn a year to maintain, warns GPC

Government plans to extend GP opening hours are unsustainable and could cost £1bn a year across all practices in England, GP leaders have warned.

Dr Richard Vautrey: extended hours pilots unsustainable (Photo: JH Lancy)

NHS England announced on Wednesday that a second wave of GP practices could bid for a share of £100m in funding under the prime minister's Challenge Fund.

The scheme will prioritise bids from areas planning to offer patients GP appointments from 8am to 8pm and other schemes to widen access.

The £50m first wave will extend opening hours and improve GP access for 5m patients by the end of the year, officials say.

But GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said the BMA was concerned the scheme was 'unsustainable' and would support only a 'limited number of practices for a short period of time'.

£1bn cost of extended hours

'The funding provided as part of this pilot is not, as NHS England has confirmed, going to be guaranteed year on year into the future. An analysis by the BMA of the funding required to sustain extended opening hours in six Wakefield practices taking part in the pilot has shown that if the Challenge Fund was rolled out across the country it would cost the NHS over £1 billion to sustain each year.'

A total of 63,000 patients are covered by the Wakefield pilot, which has received £1,436,663 in funding through the pilot scheme - equivalent to £22.80 per patient. The BMA's £1bn estimate is based on multiplying this figure by the 54m patients in England.

Dr Vautrey added: 'Although some cash-strapped practices will be tempted into applying for this funding, it is difficult to see how the provision of longer opening hours is going to be sustainable once the pilot comes to an end. This runs the risk that GP practices will end up stretching already under pressure services even more thinly by shifting appointments from the daytime to cover weekends and evenings.

'If we are going to look at extending opening hours across the country, the government will need to ensure that there is a long-term plan to provide enough GPs, practice staff and resources to allow practices to offer these services. At present, GP services are at breaking point from a combination of record patient demand, falling resources and an emerging shortage of GPs. It is vital policy-makers act to solve this immediate crisis and ensure that any further expansion is properly funded.'

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