No plans to impose face-to-face GP appointment targets, Hancock tells BMA

The government has no plans to impose face-to-face appointments targets on general practice, the health and social care secretary has told the BMA.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock

The assurance comes in a letter from Matt Hancock to GP leaders three weeks after an emergency meeting triggered by NHS England's controversial call for practices to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients who want them.

The health and social care secretary also sought to reassure the BMA over the use of a primary care 'standard operating procedure' (SOP) - which has been the vehicle for updated NHS guidance for GPs through the pandemic, but has also fuelled concern over 'micromanagement' of the profession.

Mr Hancock wrote that the SOP was a temporary measure and confirmed the government would 'seek to move away from their use' as the UK moves beyond the worst of the pandemic. NHS England has also said it could phase out the SOP once the UK lifts all COVID-19 restrictions.

Enhanced service

He also used the letter to urge the BMA to restore relations between its GP committee and NHS England - with all formal talks between the two currently suspended in the wake of a 'no confidence' vote by GP leaders in the NHS leadership.

The letter comes as the relationship between NHS England and the BMA's GP committee appears in crisis - with an enhanced service published by officials on 17 June immediately condemned by the profession's leaders as 'fundamentally flawed'.

The split between NHS England and the BMA GP committee emerged after NHS England wrote to advise practices last month that the SOP would soon be updated to urge practices to 'respect preferences for face-to-face care'.

The update went ahead despite widespread anger in general practice that the guidance was pandering to a false narrative in parts of the media that general practice had been 'closed' during the pandemic - despite half of all appointments being delivered in person throughout the pandemic in addition to millions of face-to-face contacts as part of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

Face-to-face appointments

Alongside the no confidence vote in NHS England's leaders in May, members of the BMA GP committee voted to suspend all formal talks with health service officials until 'sufficient steps have been taken to restore the committee's confidence'.

Mr Hancock's letter called for a return to talks, writing that it was 'very important to me that we are able to restore relationships and return to negotiations imminently'.

Restoring talks will depend on NHS England's ability to reassure the profession's leaders that it has taken on board deep concerns over its approach.

However, GPonline reported this week that a month on from the no confidence vote, NHS England had yet to provide any formal response over concerns raised by GP leaders, according to the BMA.

GP workload

Mr Hancock thanked 'all general practice staff for the incredible work they have been doing since the start of the pandemic to deliver essential care and support to all patients'.

He also recognised 'the immense pressures currently facing general practice delivering COVID-19 vaccinations alongside maintaining routine appointments in addition to the support general practice has provided to the clinically extremely vulnerable and those with long COVID' - praising the 'flexibility and resilience' shown by the profession.

Responding to the health and social care secretary's letter, the BMA said it was positive to see that the profession's concerns were 'starting to be heard'. But it called the announcement of two enhanced services and PCN funding in a contract update on 17 June 'poorly timed' - and repeated criticism of the weight management enhanced service.

But the spokesperson added: 'We remain committed to maintaining the momentum for change. We hope to build on the early positive signs that NHS England and the health and social care secretary are now cognizant of the need to recognise that GPs are best placed to decide how to provide the care that most suits their patients’ needs.

'We continue to explore how GPC England might engage with NHS England going forward and the BMA will update members directly in due course.'

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