During a House of Commons debate on Tuesday, health and social care secretary Mr Hancock insisted the government had a ‘whole-scale programme of work to improve access’ for patients and said appointment numbers in parts of England were already increasing.
The health secretary reaffirmed commitments to increasing GP numbers and expanding the wider primary care workforce and claimed that PCNs had been ‘an incredibly successful innovation’, allowing practices to work together.
Just over 10 days after a public consultation on controversial draft network DES plans widely condemned by GPs - amid warnings that remaining in a network could cost practices a six-figure sum each year - Mr Hancock said he wanted to get ‘value for money’ out of networks.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth accused the government of ‘bungling’ the GP contract, creating more ‘red tape’ for GPs. He also highlighted previous recruitment promises that had been broken by the Conservatives.
Responding to a question about GP access, the health secretary, said: ‘I know the frustration many families feel at not being able to access a GP appointment when they need it. We have a whole-scale programme of work to improve access.
‘This includes recruiting 6,000 more GPs and 26,000 primary care staff other than GPs—increasingly patients at GP surgeries can be treated by nurses—and increasingly enabling people, especially those who find it difficult to travel, to use technology to get the treatment they need.
‘That is the commitment that we have made, and that is the commitment on which we will deliver.’
Hancock added the government had already seen an extra 16,000 appointments delivered in Wolverhampton in the last quarter and was increasing the proportion of NHS funding spent on primary care.
However, the shadow health secretary said: ‘As [the health secretary] will know, two weeks ago GPs rejected the new service specifications in those networks. This has been described as a debacle and as leading to more red tape and taking GPs away from patients.
‘Having failed to deliver the 5,000 extra doctors that the government previously promised, having failed to recruit more GPs in the poorest areas, having now bungled the negotiations over this contract, and having failed to fix the pension tax changes for which he was partly responsible, how on earth can the secretary of state be trusted to deliver on the prime minister’s promise to cut GP waiting times to less than three weeks?
‘If the secretary of state is going to fix these contracts, can he tell us how he is going to do it—or is he content to see more GPs walk out of primary care networks before they have even got off the ground?’
Mr Hancock insisted that PCNs had been ‘been an incredibly successful innovation’ and had been responsible for allowing practices to work together. However, he admitted that negotiations with the BMA were proving ‘tough’ but was still hoping for a ‘successful conclusion to’ talks.