It’s often said that 'when in a hole, stop digging'. After a week of bad headlines about the clear crisis in the NHS and social care, rather than stopping digging on Friday evening - in a sign of desperation and panic - the spin machine in Number 10 decided to take the spade and hit hardworking GPs with it.
There can be few people who look at the growing number of sick patients waiting on trolleys in corridors for a hospital bed to become available, or at vulnerable elderly patients desperate to get home but prevented from doing so because of the lack of social care support, and conclude that somehow GPs are to blame. And yet that’s exactly what Number 10 spin doctors tried to do - blame GPs for the crisis in the NHS.
It was a classic and sadly all too typical move to create a smokescreen and divert media attention media away from government failings by trying to make someone else a scapegoat for the problem that they are responsible for.
Such a shameful and unjustified action caused a tidal wave of anger not only from GPs, but also from the millions of people who know the reality. They know that GPs and their practice teams are working as hard if not harder than other NHS staff in secondary care and are also under massive workload pressures. They know that GP practices see thousands of urgent cases every day, both in surgeries and working out-of-hours, working together to ensure every patient in the UK has access to a GP 24 hours a day, seven days a week and every week of the year.
They also know that despite a decade of underfunding and one of the worst recruitment situations in recent history that GPs will still go the extra mile and be there for them and their family when they’re needed. It’s why public appreciation of GPs remains so high.
GPs are also stepping up to do their best to offer appointments outside the already long period of core working hours. Many GPs are seeing patients before 8am or well in to the evening on top of managing the huge pressures they face during the day time. Others have responded to the challenge the previous prime minister set and established locality services in evenings and weekends for patients to access GP services.
However it’s worth noting that even NHS England's own evaluation of these schemes showed that the £45m spent only delivered £3.2m savings by reducing the number attending A&E with minor illness and made no difference to emergency admissions. This provides clear evidence that no matter how many appointments GPs are able to provide, sick patients will still need treatment in hospital and social care in the community and it's the wider cuts that have caused this wholly predictable crisis.
If we are to solve the current crisis in A&E it means investing in social care and community services so vulnerable elderly patients can be safely discharged and cared for in their own homes. It’s the cuts to social care services by this government that have to be reversed to resolve this problem.
Today the BMA chair Dr Mark Porter has rightly written to the prime minister demanding a meeting to discuss what happened over this weekend and the wider crisis in the NHS. It's time politicians praised and thanked GPs, rather than condemning or trying to scapegoat them.
It’s time they properly recognised the massive pressures practices are under and the extraordinary lengths GPs are going to in trying to keep the service going. It’s time they recognised their unacceptable and damaging rhetoric will simply drive more GPs away from the service and make it far less likely that young doctors will choose general practice as a career. For if the general practice fails the NHS will fail and if that happens, we will all know who is responsible.
- Dr Vautrey is deputy chair of the GPC