Speaking at health questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Jeremy Hunt said the government was very pleased with the progress made by the pilot programmes launched in 2014 and 2015 to provide enhanced general practice at evenings and weekends.
Asked by Jesse Norman MP (Con, Hereford and South Herefordshire) whether those pilots would be funded to continue, the health secretary replied: ‘We are looking at how to maintain funding for those areas.
‘Already 16m people are benefiting from enhanced general practice in the evenings and weekends and we wouldn't want the clock to be turned back on that.'
The initial 20 wave one pilots were launched in 2014 with £50m of funding. A second wave of 37 pilots was announced in 2015 with £100m. The government also pledged to spend an additional £400m to ensure every patient in England has evening and weekend access by 2020.
A further £25.5m - part of the 2015/16 £250m tranche of the £1bn over four years infrastructure/transformation fund - was designated for Challenge Fund pilots' IT interoperability. Some of the pilots have also benefited from additional local funding.
In the government spending review in November a Treasury document said that the roll-out of evening and weekend access would be ‘supported’ by the remaining £750m primary care transformation fund, initially announced in 2014 as a GP infrastructure fund and as part of the wider additional £2bn recurrent funding for the NHS.
An NHS England-commissioned independent evaluation of the wave one pilots published in October found ‘very low demand for access to routine GP services on Sundays. It said the cost of extended hours services were expensive compared with in-hours services, typically closer to the cost of an out-of-hours or locum service. ‘The typical average cost per total extended hour is in the range of £200 - £280,' the report said.
Primary care funding
The report said £45m had been spent to date across the 20 pilots, and suggested the scheme could bring an annual cost saving of £3.2m from reduced minor A&E attendances, but this figure 'would need to be offset against the investment in primary care'.
‘For emergency admissions and out-of-hours services, there has been no demonstrable impact and, as such, there are unlikely to be any cost savings,' it found.
GP leaders have said the costs, effect on other NHS services and low demand raised questions as to whether the pilots should be continued.