Everyone who needs to see their GP will be able to get an appointment within two weeks, Health Secretary Thérèse Coffey will pledge on Thursday, as the Government tries to bring the NHS crisis under contro.
Up to one million extra GP appointments every year will be created, the minister will claim, by surgeries being paid to take on more support staff, including nurse practitioners and GP assistants, to ease doctors’ workloads.
The Government is also appealing for one million volunteers from the general public to step forward, as they did during the early stages of the Covid pandemic, to take on non-clinical duties across the NHS and social care and help ease backlogs.
Dr Coffey, who is also deputy prime minister, pledged to tackle the ABCD of the NHS crisis – ambulances, backlogs, care and doctors and dentists – on her first day in the job two weeks ago.
But there will be scepticism over how quickly new support staff can be taken on to free up extra appointments, when the NHS is already struggling with a record waiting list and poor ambulance response times.
Patients have been struggling for years to get quick appointments to see their GP, with many forced to phone at 8am to get a same-day slot or be forced to wait as many as three or four weeks.
Pharmacists were given a bigger role in seeing patients who could not access their GP several years ago, but this has failed to fully free up appointment times.
Unveiling her plans in the Commons on Thursday, Dr Coffey will say patients with the most urgent needs should be seen on the same day, while others with less serious conditions should be offered an appointment within two weeks.
The Government will change funding rules to recruit extra support staff so GPs can focus on treating patients.
Funding will also be given so surgeries can upgrade their phone systems to make booking an appointment more efficient, while patients will be able to view data on appointments at a practice level for the first time.
Cloud-based telephone systems to speed up bookings will be in place from November.
Pharmacies will be able to supply more medicines such as contraception without a GP prescription, which the Government says could free up to two million general practice appointments a year, and also take referrals from emergency care for minor illnesses or symptoms, such as a cough, headache or sore throat.
Dr Coffey will urge the public to take part in a “national endeavour” to support the NHS and social care system. During the pandemic one million people volunteered to carry out non-medical roles and they are being urged to do so again.
The Health Secretary is expected to say: “I will put a laser-like focus on the needs of patients, making their priorities my priorities and being a champion for them on the issues that affect them most.
“Our ‘Plan for Patients’ will make it easier to get a general practice appointment and we will work tirelessly to deliver that, alongside supporting our hardworking GP teams.
“We know this winter will be tough and this is just the first step in our work to bolster our valued NHS and social care services so people can get the care they need.”
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “I know how much patients value timely, convenient access to GPs and primary care, the front door to the NHS, which is why we are continuing to drive improvements, including new roles to better meet patients’ needs and new tech to make contacting your local surgery easier.
“NHS staff are working incredibly hard to deliver record numbers of GP appointments for patients, with 11 million more this year so far than the same period last year, and more than four in five people who need an appointment seen within two weeks, including more than two fifths within one day.
“We will work with the Government so we can support NHS staff to deliver these new ambitions for patients, underpinned by the development of a long term workforce plan.”
Wes Streeting, Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary said: “With the last Labour government, patients were guaranteed a GP appointment within 48 hours until the Conservatives scrapped it. The Conservatives promising to solve the difficulties patients face in getting a GP appointment is like the arsonists promising to put out the fire.
“Time and time again, Conservative Ministers have promised a digital revolution in the NHS. NHS staff working flat out will have been hoping for something more advanced than the telephone to help them.”
“The Conservatives have failed to provide the doctors and nurses needed to treat patients on time, and patients are paying the price in record long waiting times. Unless the Government bring forward a plan for the NHS staffing crisis tomorrow, they don’t have a plan for the NHS.”
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust, said that while the Government was right to look at easing pressure on GP services, “the truth is that we are chronically short of GPs, with the number of GPs per person in England falling year after year”.
She added: “Targets don’t create any more doctors… Government should step back from micro-managing timescales for appointments and instead focus on the outcomes they want to see in primary care.
“With cloud-based telephone systems set to run alongside NHS 111, the NHS app, phoning out of hours and a multitude of other ways to access care, we risk simply proliferating ways for patients to find out the ugly truth of general practice: there just aren’t enough doctors to go around.”
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “NHS and social care both face the biggest workforce crisis in their combined history. Offloading to volunteers is not the solution.
“There’s not even a whiff here that the Government might have a serious plan to respond to the dire problems in hospitals and care homes.
“That begins and ends with a proper workforce plan to stem the growing exodus of staff leaving for much less stressful, better paying jobs.
“Rather than cut taxes and boost banker bonuses, the Government must show it’s genuine about solving the cost-of-living crisis.”