During a debate in the House of Lords, Lord Howe was asked by Labour peer Lord Collins of Highbury whether it would be a good idea if more GP practices were open on Saturdays.
Lord Howe replied: ‘In many areas that is an entirely valid observation. Commissioners are saying to GP practices that they expect them to respond to the needs of their local patient populations. If Saturday opening makes sense in that context, they should seriously consider it.’
The response came after Lord Collins raised concerns that NHS walk-in centre closures were likely to drive up A&E attendances.
Lord Collins asked the health minister: ‘Will the minister acknowledge that these closures will channel, unnecessarily, patients towards accident and emergency departments at times when GP surgeries are also closed?
‘This will almost invariably increase NHS costs in the medium term. Or is the government's strategy to blame local clinicians for cuts in NHS services?’
Lord Howe said that it was government policy to provide patients with ‘high-quality, 24/7 urgent and emergency care’ whenever they needed it.
He argued A&E attendances had not been driven up by closures, since GP-led health centres and minor injuries units now saw patients that would previously have been seen by walk-in centres.
Lord Howe said: ‘I say to the noble Lord that since walk-in centres were invented the array of services available to patients has been considerably enhanced.
'It is not just a case of going to an A&E department as an alternative. There are now many GP health centres, minor injuries units, urgent care centres and, in the extreme case, ambulance services, so I do not necessarily accept the premise of the noble Lord's question.’