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Gp Waiting Times

Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2003

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If he will make a statement on progress towards the target of no patient's waiting over 48 hours for a GP appointment. [109807]

The most recent data from February this year show that nationally some 86 per cent. of patients are now able to be offered a GP appointment within two working days. In 1997 the comparable figure was only 51 per cent.

I declare a non-registrable interest, in that my wife is a GP.

Is the Minister aware that in West Berkshire there is one surgery that has had a vacancy for some months, which it is unable to fill? Locum GPs are like gold dust: they are so rare. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that until the supply of GPs is improved, trying to meet the targets will make life intolerable for some GPs, particularly when one member of their practice is absent because of illness, holiday or a recent retirement?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in one respect—that we need more GPs in the national health service, and we are recruiting more. Since 1997 there are 1,200 more GPs working in the NHS. That is a positive development, which I am sure he would welcome, as would his wife. There are local recruitment problems. That is obviously the case, as all right hon. and hon. Members know from their constituencies. I am advised that in the primary care trust in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents there are now 11 more GPs working than in 1997. That is progress, but I agree that there is more to do. I do not, however, agree that we will not meet the target unless there are significantly more GPs. The work of the primary care collaborative has shown—I do not know whether there are practices in the hon. Gentleman's primary care trust that have taken part in the work of the collaborative—that by looking critically at how we structure appointments in primary care, it is possible to provide patients with better access. One thing that I have learned, both as a Minister and as a Member of Parliament, is that access to the services of a GP and a hospital is the public's top priority. That is what we are trying to meet, and that is what the targets are designed to help bring about.

Does the Minister accept that one of the factors in obtaining an appointment with a GP is coping with rising population trends in areas such as Swadlincote in my constituency? Will he therefore advise NHS management to ensure that we proceed as rapidly as possible with the LIFT—local improvement finance trust—project to rebuild Swadlincote's clinic to accommodate a new GP practice, which would greatly improve access to GP care from that town?

Yes; I agree with what my hon. Friend says. The NHS LIFT programme is a very welcome boost to investment in primary care ensuring that almost £1 billion of investment will go into the infrastructure of the NHS primary care estate. That is long overdue, and it is an essential complement to the work that we are doing to improve services and secondary care. I agree strongly with what he said.

As ever, the Minister's response tells only part of the story. When the Government instructed GPs not to keep patients waiting more than 48 hours, the response from many practices was to stop taking appointments more than 48 hours in advance all together, even if patients wanted them. Is not this merely another target that is being achieved only by moving the goalposts?

No; that is simply not true—it is not the case. The Government have issued no such instruction. If the hon. Gentleman's case rests on some instruction that we have issued, I am afraid that he will be disappointed. The Department of Health has issued no such instruction.