'Out of touch' Javid deepens rift with GPs over face-to-face appointments

GP leaders have accused Sajid Javid of being out of touch with reality after he told MPs it is 'high time' GPs offer face-to-face appointments to anyone who wants one now that life in the UK is 'almost back to completely normal'.

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid (Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The comments closely resemble the central demand in a 'tone deaf' letter from NHS England earlier this year that triggered a vote of no confidence in health service leaders from the BMA's GP committee and a prolonged breakdown in talks between the two sides.

GP leaders pointed out at the time that practices are not contractually required to offer face-to-face appointments to patients irrespective of clinical need.

However, despite government advice to switch to predominantly remote consultations, more than half of all appointments during the pandemic have been face-to-face - in addition to millions more as part of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

Face-to-face access

Mr Javid's remarks suggest the government's stance has not changed on face-to-face access since the controversial NHS England letter, and come just two weeks after the GP committee voted to resume talks with health service officials.

His comments also come just days after GP leaders warned constant misinformation around face-to-face appointments and false claims that practices had been closed had triggered a 'barrage of vitriol' against GPs.

Both the BMA and RCGP have pushed back on the comments, warning the health secretary that life - and the NHS - were far from 'back to normal'.

Responding to a question in the House of Commons after a speech on COVID-19 booster campaign plans, Mr Javid said: 'It is high time that GPs started operating in the way they did before the pandemic and offering face-to-face appointments to everyone who would like one.'

COVID-19 pandemic

During the same debate, the health and social care secretary told another MP: 'Everyone can understand why at the height of a pandemic GPs couldn't provide access in the normal way. But we are way past that now and life is starting to return almost back to completely normal.

'And as that is happening it should be happening in our GP surgeries too. More GPs should be offering face-to-face access and we intend to do a lot more about it.'

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'These comments show how far removed the secretary of state is from the reality of what is happening in GP practices. They also reveal a lack of agreement even within government, as the prime minister says the pandemic is far from over and his secretary of state is saying that life is starting to return almost to completely normal.'

Mr Javid also told MPs that the government was working with the BMA and other organisations on access to face-to-face care, but the BMA said this was 'simply untrue'.

GP crisis

Dr Vautrey told GPonline: 'Our letters, outlining what we believe is needed to help GPs, have gone unanswered. We would very much welcome the opportunity to have frank discussions with him about the current GP crisis, the need to stop the abuse directed at GPs and their teams, and what needs to be done to fix it.'

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: 'The real issue here is not about face-to-face consultations, but the chronic shortage of GPs caused by a decade of under-investment in the family doctor service by successive governments.

'We need the secretary of state to ensure that the government urgently delivers on its election manifesto promise of 6,000 additional GPs and 26,000 extra members of the wider practice team. We also need initiatives to reduce bureaucratic burdens and prevent more GPs from burning out and leaving the profession.

'General practice has been open throughout the pandemic and the move to mainly remote consultations from the start of COVID-19 was in line with government guidelines. It was necessary for infection control and to keep patients - and GP teams - as safe as possible.'

GP workforce

Dr Vautrey added: 'Life is absolutely not back to normal - the number of COVID-related deaths and people in hospital continue to rise and there are now just 0.46 GPs per 1,000 patients in England, down from 0.52 in 2015. To suggest a return to a pre-pandemic way of working is as impractical as it is unworkable for GPs.

'They need to see patients as safely as possible, often in premises unfit to do so and without anywhere near enough staff. They are also trying to see all those on the huge waiting lists who have not been able to get the care they needed in the past 18 month – a backlog that didn’t exist before the pandemic struck. GPs and their teams need so much more support and resource from this government to be able to give patients the care they need and that doctors want to give.'

Dr Marshall added: 'Despite the easing of restrictions, this pandemic is far from over and we cannot afford to be complacent. The rise in the number of COVID-19 infections means that we must continue to remain cautious, and take precautions to reduce the spread of infection, particularly in health care settings such as GP surgeries where vulnerable patients are being seen on a daily basis.'

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