Health experts have reacted with scepticism to a promise of a 16% increase in GP consultation rates.
The Conservatives promised over the weekend to add 50 million GP consultations to the NHS in England. The proposal trumps a promise set out by Labour in September – when it proposed to increase appointment numbers by 27 million.
GP leaders said the Conservatives had failed to deliver their 2017 promise to increase GP numbers by 5,000. The latest promise is based on increasing that number to 6,000 by 2024.
Questioned about the plans by the BBC, health secretary Matt Hancock, who took up his post in July 2018, said: “It’s true the number of GPs was falling when I became health secretary. The numbers are now rising but I want them to go much further.”
Health Education England recently announced that GP trainee recruitment this year had hit record levels – with 3,538 trainees recruited against a target of 3,250.
Royal College of GPs chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: “We are keen to hear of any proposals to reduce waiting times – and it’s encouraging that the pledges outlined today do not appear to come with strings attached about imposing arbitrary access targets or with unrealistic timelines, which might win votes but will risk setting back general practice by 20 years.
“Crucially, patients cannot expect this to happen overnight as more appointments will only happen when other promises are delivered first, and as always the devil will be in the detail.”
She added: “We welcome the commitments to recruit more GPs and practice staff and retain existing GPs, especially the recognition that previous commitments for boosting our workforce have not focused sufficiently on retaining existing GPs.”
Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said the proposal was “encouraging.” He said: “A previous Conservative pledge to deliver 5,000 GPs by 2020 has fallen way short of its target and the number of GPs we have has continued to dwindle. So, we wait with some trepidation to see if this latest promise can deliver.”
Richard Murray, chief executive of the King’s Fund, said: “While more GPs than ever are being trained, overall GP numbers are falling, with 6% fewer full time equivalent GPs in September 2018 than in 2015.
“Across the country, health and care services are grappling with severe staff shortages, with approximately 100,000 vacancies in NHS trusts and 122,000 vacancies in social care at any one time. If the next government wants to improve the care and support available to patients and the public, they must first tackle the workforce crisis.”
Helen Buckingham, from the Nuffield Trust, said: “Commitments on trainees should be taken with caution though. We should remember the NHS has a long tradition of missing targets to train more staff. For every four GPs trained, only three make it through to front line, and on average they work only two thirds of full time.
“It is vital that this commitment for more appointments does not become a target – and as result a stick to beat general practice with.”