His comments are the clearest indication yet that the government recognises there may not be enough demand in some areas for weekend routine appointments to justify seven-day GP services.
|Read more articles from this interview|
Alistair Burt’s acknowledgement that the government would take a flexible approach, in an exclusive interview with GPonline, comes after a number of extended access pilots set up by the prime minister’s Challenge Fund cut their Sunday opening hours because of a lack of demand.
In its general election manifesto the Conservative party promised to provide seven-day access to GP appointments for every patient in England.
But Mr Burt accepted there could be some areas where there is no demand. ‘I think the government should be entirely flexible,' the minister said. In areas where there is no demand for Sunday services, ‘no one is going to be running them’.
Evidence from pilots suggested that seven-day routine services were working and in line with patient demand, he said. ‘The sense from patients [is] that those who cannot make routine appointments are looking for this opportunity,' he said.
Seven-day GP access
The pilots, which aim to bring extended access to 18m patients by the end of the year, would test patient demand, Mr Burt said. He added: ‘It does take time for people to recognise something new has come along, and to want to use it.
‘In a sense that is what the pilots are all about. If the government had gone about this saying: "We are going to do this" - stroke of a pen - I think that would have been wrong. But it is not, so let's test it out.’
Mr Burt's comments came as health secretary Jeremy Hunt appeared before the House of Commons health select committee. Mr Hunt told MPs that ‘every practice needs to offer its patients the opportunity to have routine appointments 8 till 8 and over weekends.’
While not every practice will have to open at weekends, ‘they do need to network so that if it’s not your practice that’s open, a neighbouring practice is open’.
But Mr Hunt also said extended access should match demand. ‘We don’t want an inflexible approach to this where we are paying for GPs to sit reading the papers when their services aren’t needed. That's why it’s important we set up flexible arrangements that respond to the public demand but is a good use of resources.’
Photo: Wilde Fry