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Primary Care: Patient Access

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2024

We are enormously grateful for the work of GPs in delivering 64 million more appointments nationally than in 2019. Our primary care recovery plan enhances GP access by expanding community pharmacy services nationwide. Some 98% of community pharmacies have signed up to the Pharmacy First offer, with over 125,000 consultations claimed in the first month.

Across Bedfordshire, we suffer from patient to GP ratios that are well in excess of the national average; high housing growth is simply not matched by GP capacity. At Wixams, we have been able to break through 15 years of deadlock by putting stakeholders together, but issues still remain across the county. From Shefford to Stondon, heartbreaking stories are commonplace. The issue is not ICB-specific; it affects people right across the country. What more can we do to ensure that areas with high housing growth have the GP capacity that residents deserve?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. He may be aware that the Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes ICB received £36 million for its operational capital budget in 2023-24, with over £118 million for this spending review period. That operational capital is core funding provided to ICBs for delivering primary care, among other things. In addition, he will be aware that ICBs are able to provide input to planning permissions to ensure that primary care is delivered where there are new housing developments. I have worked with other hon. Members across the House to tackle this issue, and I am very happy to meet him to discuss it further.

When I speak to my constituents in Brislington, they tell me they have to wait an inordinate time to get through on the phone to their GPs at the Brooklea health centre, and wait over two weeks for appointments. Constituents in Fishponds have been told that it is over an hour’s wait for prescription medication at the local pharmacy—and we all know the situation with dentists. The other thing my constituents are waiting for is a general election. Does the Minister agree that that is the only way we will sort out these problems in the NHS?

I certainly do not agree. If Labour were in government, we would see significantly worse outcomes. Covid was a once-in-100-years pandemic, and we have pulled out all the stops to recover from that. It is a huge tribute to all those working in primary care that they have done so well. In the hon. Lady’s ICB— Bristol North, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire —38.4% of all appointments were delivered on the same day they were booked in February this year, and 84% were delivered within two weeks of booking, with 66% of them face to face. These are extremely positive numbers for the 482,000 appointments delivered in February 2024. What is really important is that the number of patient care staff has increased by 656 full-time equivalents since 2019.

I have listened to the Minister’s comments, but the number of patients per GP in the Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes area is nearly 25% higher than the national average. Will the Minister explain why her Government think it is a good idea to cut the proportion of doctors being trained as GPs from around one in three to around one in four?

The hon. Lady is simply wrong. She will be aware that, in fact, our long-term workforce plan is intended to raise the number of training places for GPs to 6,000 by 2031-32. In 2022, we had over 4,000 new GPs apply to take training places—an absolute record. There is much more to do, and I am working with GPs on a future for GP practice taskforce to make sure that we do everything we can, including hiring the 36,000 additional professionals now working in GP practices, in order to relieve the pressure on GPs and deliver much better patient access.

Last week, a constituent contacted me to say that her teeth crumbled during pregnancy and she was unable to get a dentist appointment. Another constituent, who was in agony, desperately pleaded for help to find a dentist. My own son, Clifford, has been waiting two years for a tooth extraction, and I have received hundreds of emails about similar issues. It is simply not good enough. What plans do the Government have to sort this out once and for all, and what advice does the Minister have for my constituents?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. We know that because all dentists were locked down during covid, the recovery in access to NHS care has not been as fast as we would like. That is why we announced our dentistry recovery plan, including a new patient premium, which, since it was launched on 1 March, has already seen hundreds of thousands of new NHS patients who have not seen a dentist in two years. Some 240 dentists will receive golden hellos to encourage them to work in underserved areas. We also have our new Smile for Life prevention programme, which will ensure that babies receive an early dental check for their milk teeth in family hubs, and that pregnant mums receive better dental care and advice. We are now trying to work with dentists to look at reform of the units of dental activity contract, but following the first meeting of the group yesterday, it seems that dentists feel that all the parameters are in place. What we now need to do is ensure that the incentives are there and that we see things changing rapidly.

My GPs are working extraordinarily hard to increase access in the face of ever increasing public demand. I am alarmed by the Labour party’s talk about scrapping the GP partnership model, as I find in the Stroud district that GP practices are some of the most efficient parts of our NHS services. They need support, the removal of bureaucracy and the opening up of funding pots, rather than dismantling. Will my right hon. Friend explain how access to primary care would not be helped by removing the partnership model, and what are the Government doing to help ICBs create more flexible partnership funding pots?

My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point, and I say again that GPs absolutely underpin our primary care. We all absolutely rely on them, and our measures to create 36,000 additional roles in GP practices will provide them with the additional capacity they need so that they can serve their patients better. That is good for patients, good for primary care and incredibly good value for the taxpayer. It is ludicrous that Labour is proposing to undermine the GP partnership model; that would be a disaster for primary care.