Exclusive: Tory plans to extend GP access unachievable, says Wollaston

The Conservative chairwoman of the House of Commons health select committee, former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston, has said her party's plans for GP access seven days a week across England will not work.

Dr Sarah Wollaston: seven-day GP plans unrealistic (Photo: JH Lancy)

Speaking exclusively to GP Dr Wollaston, who has led the influential committee since June, said she doubted David Cameron’s promise that every patient would have access to GPs from 8am to 8pm and at weekends was achievable given the current workforce crisis.

The MP for Totnes, Devon, who practised as a GP in Chagford, on Dartmoor, said the plans would be ‘almost impossible to achieve’ in rural areas like hers, even if small practices federate.

The prime minister announced a £100m expansion of the Challenge Fund for GP access during the Conservative party conference in September, and pledged a further £400m to ensure 12-hour, seven-day access to every patient in England by 2020.

Unachievable promises

‘I think we have to be very careful that we don't over-promise and under-deliver,’ warned Dr Wollaston. ‘That's my counsel to colleagues, to say, it might be achievable in big metropolitan centres and towns, and of course, that is something that, clearly the public have expressed - they would like to have greater availability.’

But she added: ‘I doubt it will be everybody. I don't see how it's achievable with the current workforce shortfall. I don't see how it's achievable if you can't get a locum. You can't have GPs working seven days a week.’

Increased access could only work when the GP workforce crisis is tackled and then the special issues facing remote rural areas are examined, she said. ‘And it's not going to be achievable, in my view, in every part of the country.

‘But it doesn't mean to say we shouldn't be focussing on the workforce, and saying what can we do to make sure people have improved access.’

Dr Wollaston said it may be reasonable for GPs in large practices to be expected to cover weekends between them, but even that could not be addressed without sufficient GP numbers.

Seven-day GP access

Announcing the policy in September, Mr Cameron said: ‘People need to be able to see their GP at a time that suits them and their family. That's why we will make sure everyone can see a GP seven days a week.

‘We will also support thousands more GP practices to stay open longer, giving millions of patients better access to their doctor.'

GPs have until 15 January to bid for a share of the £100m funding for the second wave of the Challenge Fund.

The BMA has warned that the government's extended access plans are unsustainable, warning that it could cost more than £1bn a year to maintain 12-hour, seven-day GP access across England. 

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