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Shortage of Doctors: Medical Provision

Volume 631: debated on Tuesday 14 November 2017

2. What steps he is taking to ensure adequate medical provision in areas where there is a shortage of doctors. (901808)

The NHS needs more doctors, which is why last year we announced one of the biggest-ever increases—a 25% increase—in the number of medical school places. Some 500 additional students will start next year and a further 1,000 the year after.

I am pleased to hear that the Department is working on addressing these issues, but can we also look closely at other difficulties specifically facing rural areas? Local patient transport is certainly one of these. With rural bus links thin on the ground and struggling, will the Secretary of State assure us that adequate provision will be made to ensure that patients can always access the services they need?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the question. I visited a GP surgery in Thornbury, in his neighbouring county, on Friday and discussed some of these issues. The NHS has an obligation to make sure that people can access its services, and in certain circumstances people are entitled to funding to help them do that. I thank him for raising the issue, however, and know that he will continue to fight hard on it.

All four witnesses who gave evidence to the Health Committee inquiry into the current workforce crisis last week described the current situation as “unprecedented”. Janet Davies, the head of the Royal College of Nursing, said that if Brexit happened, it would be devastating. Does the Secretary of State accept that if there is no deal next month on the rights of EU nationals, the current stream of EU workers leaving our NHS and social care system will become a flood?

With respect, I do not think it helps to reassure the brilliant NHS professionals from the EU who are working in the system when the right hon. Gentleman asks questions like that. The reality is that those people are staying in the NHS, and I take every opportunity to ensure that they feel welcome. I try to stress how important they are, and how the NHS would fall over without them. The Government continue to make every possible effort to secure a deal for their future, which we are very confident that we will achieve.

Grantham accident and emergency department is very important to my constituents and those of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). It is also very important to me, as it saved my husband’s life on two occasions. Last August it was closed overnight because there were not enough doctors to staff it safely. There are enough doctors now, but unfortunately NHS Improvement has interfered to stop its reopening, postponing it by at least a month. Does the Secretary of State agree that it should be reopened in December?

I think I have said to my hon. Friend in the House, and I have certainly said to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—who I am delighted to see back in the Chamber after an incredibly brave battle against cancer—that this was a temporary closure based on difficulties in recruiting doctors, so I will certainly look into the issue very carefully.

Last winter, patients were languishing on trolleys in A&E for up to 12 hours. The Red Cross was called in, and people were leaving A&E before their treatment. Does the Secretary of State recognise that it would be absolutely unacceptable for that to happen again this winter? What steps is he taking to ensure that it will not?

With respect, the Red Cross was not called in. As the hon. Lady well knows—as a doctor working at Tooting hospital—NHS trusts contract with the Red Cross throughout the year. However, she is right to say that what happened last year was not acceptable. We have done a huge amount: perhaps most important is our provision of an extra £1 billion for this year’s social care budget and a further £1 billion for next year’s budget, because that is where particular pressures were, but we have also allocated £100 million to a capital fund to help A&E departments to improve their facilities.

A shortage of nurses has led to the closure of the in-patient ward at Shepton Mallet Community Hospital this winter. What have the Government done to increase the number of nurses available in rural areas such as Somerset, and to encourage the Somerset clinical commissioning group to recommit itself to the hospital’s future as a matter of urgency?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the close interest that he takes in his local community hospital, which matters so much not just to his constituents but to the NHS, because many people are discharged to it from busy district general hospitals. As he says, there has been a shortage of nurses. That is why we have decided to increase the number of training places by 25%, which is the biggest increase in the history of the NHS.

Would the Secretary of State consider introducing a bursary-type scheme whereby young doctors’ student debt would be wiped out after they had spent five years in general practice in areas with a shortage of doctors?

We have introduced something similar. In areas where it has been difficult to recruit GP trainees for three years or more, we have provided a £20,000 salary supplement to attract people to those areas. It has been very successful, and we have extended it to 200 places this year.

High Weald Lewes Havens clinical commissioning group has undertaken a consultation on closing Rotherfield surgery, which is in my constituency, against the wishes of the community and local councillors. Does my right hon. Friend agree that CCGs have responsibilities and liabilities when it comes to supporting rural practices, and that they should do all that they can to recruit GPs in rural areas?

I do agree. I also know that, although areas such as Wealden are beautiful places in which to live, it is sometimes very difficult to recruit people to become, in particular, new partners in general practices in such areas. We are concerned about that. Nationally, we have a plan to recruit 5,000 more GPs by 2020-21, but we need to ensure that they go to rural areas such as that represented by my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State will know that there are huge numbers of vacancies across the NHS, particularly in nursing, partly driven by pay restraint. He has said that the pay cap will be scrapped, so does he agree with Simon Stevens, who said that it would be an “own goal” not to fully fund the scrapping of that pay cap in the Budget next week and to expect it to be paid for by productivity gains?

I have been clear about this: the Government are willing to be flexible in terms of funding additional pay beyond the 1% for nurses, but we want some important reforms to the contracts that they operate under. If those negotiations go well—at the moment we have been having very constructive discussions with the Royal College of Nursing—I am hopeful that we can get a deal that everyone will be happy with.

So the Secretary of State does not agree with Simon Stevens. May I ask him about Simon Stevens’s comments last week? He warned that if the underfunding continues, waiting lists will rise from 4 million to 5 million, cancer care will deteriorate, the mental health pledges the Secretary of State has committed to will not be met, and the 18-week target will be permanently abandoned. And is it not the case that if in next week’s Budget the Chancellor does not allocate at least an extra £6 billion a year for the NHS, the right hon. Gentleman will have failed in his responsibility as Secretary of State?

What Simon Stevens noticed, and we all noticed, was that when he came with this plan in 2014 Labour refused to back it, and in the 2015 election they refused to fund it—to the tune of the £5.5 billion more that the Conservatives were prepared to put in, but the hon. Gentleman’s party refused to put in. He is quoting Simon Stevens, who also said that when the British economy sneezes, the NHS catches a cold—it will be far worse than a cold for the NHS if we have Labour’s run on the pound.