Giving evidence to the health select committee on Tuesday, Mr Hunt admitted that implementing seven-day GP care was far more difficult than overhauling hospital services because of limited capacity.
He reiterated that flexibility in the government plans meant not all GP practices will have to open from 8am to 8pm seven days a week under the government's plans for a seven-day NHS. But all practices will have to offer wider access through collaboration with neighbouring surgeries, and telephone and Skype appointments.
He said: ‘We’re not asking every practice to open 8 till 8 seven days a week – we’re saying every practice needs to offer patients the opportunity to have an appointment over this time frame. That might be with a neighbouring practice, through Skype or a federation agreement.’
Practices will need to match supply with demand in their local area, he added, to decide what arrangements they make for patients seeking weekend or evening appointments.
‘We don’t want to have a completely inflexible approach to this, where we’re paying GPs for a service that’s not needed if there’s no demand. That’s why it’s important we set up a flexible system that matches local needs.’
By the end of this financial year in March 2016, up to 18m patients will be able to book evening and weekend appointments at a GP, Mr Hunt said.
He added: ‘Part of the long-term aim is to increase capacity of primary care so that we make the most of the crown jewel of NHS, which is general practice. General practice is underinvested in, and I think we are mad if we don’t see that as a problem and don’t do something about it.’
GP workforce crisis
The government still intends on increasing GP ranks by 5,000 by 2020 – a 15% increase in GP workforce and ‘the biggest in the history of the NHS’, he said.
Weekend working is ‘not a part of our culture’, the health secretary said, but this had to change across the NHS.
‘Care is not as good at weekends, and that leads to excess deaths,’ he said. ‘As health secretary, I can say it’s not acceptable to deliver subpar care on weekends.
‘If we didn’t do something about the 11,000 deaths caused by the ‘weekend effect’, then that is a betrayal of what the NHS stands for.’