General practice is set to be a key political battleground in the campaign for the 2015 general election after the health secretary responded to the challenge thrown down by Labour last week, confirming a pledge to spend £400m on extending 8am to 8pm and weekend GP services across England.
A Conservative government after 2015 would invest £100m in a new round of extended-hours pilots, following on from last year's Challenge Fund scheme to widen access for 7.5 million patients. Another £400m would extend seven-day access for the whole country by 2020.
The proposals are likely to meet resistance from GPs, after a GP poll this year found nine out of 10 GPs opposed routine seven-day primary care services.
The GP contract agreement to give every patient in England a named doctor responsible for all out-of-hospital care was also highlighted by the health secretary, who said said it was astonishing that Labour had abolished named GPs in 2004. 'Continuity of care is absolutely vital,' he said.
Train and retain GPs
‘We urgently need to make it easier for busy, working people to get an appointment,’ said Mr Hunt. ‘That means more GPs, so I can today confirm plans to train and retain an extra 5,000 GPs.’
Mr Hunt repeated the government's commitment to give patients free online access to medical records by April 2015.
Last week Labour made the NHS and general practice a key plank of its election campaign, promising 8,000 new GPs funded from a £2.5bn annual NHS cash boost.
Labour shadow health secretary Andy Burnham provoked consternation among GP leaders when he revealed plans to put GPs at the heart of new hospital trust-led integrated care organisations as part of his health and social care integration policy.
Labour has also pledged £100m to fund its 48-hour appointment guarantee.
Economy and NHS pledge
Mr Hunt told his party there was not a 'choice between a strong economy or a strong NHS'. 'You need both,' he said, warning that only the Conservatives could deliver.
Labour, said Mr Hunt, 'seek to trick the public into thinking one party cares for the NHS and the other doesn't'.
'Well I have a message for Mr Miliband. It’s not a Labour health service or a Conservative health service. It is a national health service.'
A future Conservative government. he said, would 'have no greater priority than to protect, support and invest in our NHS'.
RCGP chairwoman Dr Maureen Baker warned that the Conservative plans would not mean 8am to 8pm and weekend services at every practice.
More GPs needed
'In order to realise Mr Cameron’s ambitions, the government would also need to ensure the recruitment of thousands of additional GPs,' she said.
'The prime minister has pledged that there are 5,000 more GPs in the pipeline. That is a good start, but we estimate that we will need at least 8,000 by 2020 just to continue to deliver services on the basis of the existing hours GPs are contracted to provide.'
Dr Baker said there was not enough evidence of patient demand for seven-day services and the Challenge Fund pilots had yet to be evaluated.
'Newspaper headlines implying that all patients will be able to walk into their local surgery in the evenings or at weekends merely raise expectations that general practice cannot live up to with the resources we are currently being given', she said.
'Whilst a welcome start, further significant investment has to follow to ensure that general practice has the resources to meet rapidly increasing patient demand.'
NHS Alliance chairman Dr Michael Dixon welcomed the issues raised by Mr Hunt.
‘He is right to point out that while our NHS is still something of which we must be proud, there is a huge amount we can do to improve it,' he said.
‘We share the sentiment of truly personal care and the announcement that, from some point next year, all patients will have online access to their medical records.’