NHS England is looking to increase standardisation of opening hours across practices.
Differences across the country in how practices operate during core hours will be assessed by a working group involving representatives from CCGs, NHS England area teams and LMCs in 2014.
In a letter to practices setting out required opening times over the Christmas period, NHS England director of primary care Dr David Geddes wrote: ‘We are seeking to introduce some degree of national consistency in our approach to the commissioning and contract oversight of primary care services so that we can advertise to patients what services they should expect.’
Over the Christmas period, NHS England has warned that contract flexibilities that allow practices to vary their opening times within core hours may be tightened.
Under the GP contract practices have some flexibility to vary opening – the contract requires them to ensure ‘provision of essential services at such times, within core hours, as are appropriate to meet the reasonable needs’ of patients.
To ease pressure on A&E and out-of-hours services during the busy Christmas period, NHS England has said it expects practices to remain open throughout core hours of 8am to 6.30pm and that closing early would not be ‘reasonable’.
However, Dr Geddes has confirmed that practices that currently close for an hour or so around midday for staff training will not be required to alter this arrangement over the Christmas period.
Dr Geddes said: 'We recognise the benefits of closing for lunchtime staff training and support, and this has often become established as a practice routine.
‘We are asking practices to respect their contracted hours and to provide access to patients for any non-bank holiday day as usual. If a practice has had a custom whereby they have diverted calls to another number to allow time for staff development, then we would not require this to change over the Christmas period.
’We appreciate however that historically, custom and practice have differed across the country. In the new year therefore, we will wish to bring together a working group of CCGs, Area Teams and LMC representatives to develop a framework which supports and values opportunities for practice development and networking whilst ensuring that contracted hours are made available to ensure patients have accessible services.’
* Christmas practice opening hours and NHS England's Dr Scrooge