The GPC must now prepare its counter attack

Leap years, like World Cups or general elections, offer the chance to do something different that presents itself only once every four years. The next general election will be in the spring of 2009 if Gordon Brown follows the pattern set by his predecessor and calls a poll four years into the Labour government's term of office. So, what do leap years and, specifically, 29 February 2008 mean for you?

Perhaps it's the first time you've been able to celebrate your birthday on the actual date of your birth since 2004. Or maybe it just means one more extra day at work.

However, 29 February 2008 is also the day when the GPC concludes its 12-day poll on extended hours and new GMS contract changes.

Mr Brown had denied the 77 per cent of GP readers who told us last year that they would not vote Labour at the next election, the opportunity to express themselves fully when he ruled out a snap election last year. But the GPC poll does at least offer some redress.

GPs might have criticised the poll questions as biased, but they offer an opportunity to vent fury at the negotiating tactics of health secretary Alan Johnson.

Potentially, the poll might reveal that GPs chose Option A because it was the least worse option. They might also believe that the government's negotiating methods are unacceptable, the English policy of expanding private commercial provision of NHS general practice will be detrimental to patients, and have no confidence in the government's handling of the NHS.

So far, so good. However, the lack of an opportunity for GPs to reject both the DoH offer and the imposition means hope of a knockout blow to Mr Brown's government will be limited to a bloody nose.

A recent letter from GPC chairman Dr Laurence Buckman to the profession included the sentiment that extended hours 'was not the ideal battleground on which to engage'.

The analysis added: 'The public debate needs to be focused more on the wider threats from the increased privatisation agenda and the implementation of the Darzi proposals rather than extended hours.'

The message could not be clearer: now is not the time for battle, but planning for it.

With an election unlikely until 2009 at the earliest, maybe a time-out at this stage is wise.

However, the question remains as to whether the arguments that the GPC and BMA should be formulating now will carry sufficient weight with the media and electorate to deliver the knockout blow the government deserves (according to that 77 per cent of GPs).

Over to you, Dr Buckman.

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