Under plans to increase the number of appointments available to patients, NHS England has pledged to end routine half-day practice closures between 8am and 6:30pm and to boost appointments outside core hours.
Practices will now have to ask permission from local health chiefs to close during core hours, or face losing funding as part of the expansion of primary and community care set out in the NHS long-term plan.
NHS England estimates that more than 700 surgeries shut for part of the week. Figures released by health officials show that seven practices open for 15 hours a week - 37.5 hours lower than 52.5 contracted weekly hours.
NHS England estimates the plans could create up to 287,000 more GP appointments a year, with half-day closures reducing available GP time by around 1m hours.
However, the plans have been heavily criticised by GP leaders, with the BMA labelling the figures as 'fantasy'.
Under the network contract DES introduced as part of the five-year GP contract this year, practices need official approval for half-day closure. The DES says: ‘Unless a GP practice has prior written approval from the commissioner, no PCN member GP practice will be closed for half a day on a weekly basis and all patients must be able to access essential services, which meet the reasonable needs of patients during core hours, from their own practice or from any sub-contractor.’
GP practices that close their doors during core hours without putting in place alternatives for their patients could lose their share of funding worth over £200,000 for an average sized network, which is typically made up of five practices.
Acting director of primary care Dr Nikki Kanani said the plans would improve the availability of appointments across core hours in the week.
'Family doctors are the bedrock of our health service and access to GP practices remains essential to the NHS as we deliver our long term plan and also to patients who want GPs to be available at core times, as well as in the evenings and at weekends,' Dr Kanani said.
'By curbing half days closures we will be freeing up hundreds of thousands of appointments at a time when we know it can sometimes be tricky to see your GP,' she added.
BMA GP committee Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘It is disingenuous for NHS England to be so categorical in claiming they know exactly how many more appointments would be available if practices changed their opening arrangements.
‘NHS leaders must work to address the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis to bring about lasting improvement to patient care and avoid putting overworked doctors under further strain.’
Meanwhile, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said it was wrong to suggest GPs were ‘shirking their responsibilities’ towards patients.
‘We want our patients to be able to see a GP or member of the practice team when they need to - and it is as frustrating for us as it is for them when they have to wait too long for an appointment,' she said.
‘What is really needed to ensure we have a robust general practice service, is not criticising hard-working GPs and our teams for temporarily closing our surgeries without really understanding the specific reasons why for each site, but to invest in our service and grow our workforce, so that we don't have to,' she added.