In a speech this week criticising the government's record, the opposition leader said the NHS should be there for patients ‘when we need’ - and criticised access to GP appointments.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall pushed back on the comments - saying the profession had been 'working to its limits' during the pandemic - with teams continuing to do their best to offer ‘timely, safe and appropriate care’, on top of delivering millions of COVID-19 vaccines.
Significant underinvestment in general practice and poor workforce planning, in addition to pandemic pressures, had left the profession overstretched, he warned - urging the government to deliver on its promise of recruiting 6,000 extra GPs by 2024.
Despite chronic pressure on general practice, however, between June and November 2021 - the most recent six months for which data are available - between 72% and 76% of GP appointments have been delivered within a week of booking, according to data from NHS Digital. More than half of appointments have been delivered within a day of booking.
Overall, GP teams carried out 34,603,811 appointments in November last year - including COVID vaccination appointments, including 19m appointments face-to-face.
Responding to Sir Keir’s comments, Professor Marshall said: ‘GPs are just as frustrated as our patients when they have difficulty accessing an appointment quickly, but our teams will always do our very best to make sure those most in need receive timely, safe and appropriate care.
‘We want to be able to deliver the care that patients need when they need it, but more than a decade of underinvestment in general practice, and historic poor workforce planning, has resulted in a significantly overstretched workforce. General practice was struggling before the pandemic, but the crisis has only exacerbated the intense workload and workforce pressures we are working under.
Numbers of GPs
‘Current pressures in the NHS are not confined to hospitals. General practice has been working to its limits and still faces tough months ahead, which won't be helped by high numbers of staff falling sick or having to isolate due to testing positive for COVID-19.’
The RCGP chair highlighted that GPs and their teams continued to deliver a large number of consultations despite continuing to administer the lion’s share of COVID-19 vaccinations. He added that falling numbers of GPs - down 6% between September 2015 and August 2021 - was adding to problems.
Professor Marshall said: ‘The government must make good on their manifesto pledge of an additional 6000 GPs and 26,000 members of the practice team by 2024, so that GPs and our teams can deliver the safe and appropriate care our patients need.
‘We specifically need to see robust plans put in place to keep highly-trained, experienced GPs in the workforce for longer, and that needs to start by tackling undoable workload in general practice to stop exhausted GPs burning out and leaving the profession earlier than planned.’