A survey of 10,000 patients in England, conducted by Picker Institute Europe on behalf of the DoH, found access to GPs was improving, with 88 per cent of patients able to see a GP within 48 hours. This figure has risen 1 per cent in each of the past two years.
It also found that four out of 10 patients received an appointment on the same day as they contacted their GP, up from 27 per cent three years ago.
But 69 per cent said they would be happy to see surgeries close during the day if GPs offered appointments outside of the traditional 9am-6pm opening times.
The most popular option was after 6pm, backed by 34 per cent of patients. Saturday opening was favoured by 29 per cent.
The GMS contract describes the in-hours period as weekdays between 8am and 6.30pm.
Health minister Andy Burnham said that the DoH would push for longer opening hours through the GMS contract.
'Our aim is to improve convenience and lengthen the time during which patients can get routine access to GP services,' he said.
'Each practice should look at opening for the times that best meet the needs of their patients.'
Last year's primary care White Paper suggested that practice opening hours be agreed with PCTs. Since then PCTs in London have looked at drawing up plans for opening hours between 8am and 8pm, following the success of pilots in Walthamstow which saw three practices doing it, at no extra cost (GP, 20 October 2006).
GPC chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said that the GPC would consider longer hours but that primary care organisations already had the opportunity to do this through negotiating local enhanced services and they would have to show a real need for longer hours, ‘not just a desire'.
'A shift to more appointments in evenings or at weekends would inevitably mean fewer during the normal day if we are to work within existing resources,' he said.
'The majority of our patients - the young and those with chronic, long-term conditions - don't want to lose daytime surgery hours. They would be disadvantaged as a firstname.lastname@example.org