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NHS: Walk-in Centres

Volume 739: debated on Thursday 11 October 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many NHS walk-in centres have been closed or had their opening hours restricted since May 2010, and how many are scheduled to close or have their opening hours restricted.

My Lords, since 2007, the local NHS has been responsible for NHS walk-in centres. It is for primary care trusts to decide locally on the availability of these services. No information on walk-in centre closures or opening hours is held centrally.

My Lords, I was expecting that response. Will the Minister acknowledge that these closures will channel, unnecessarily, patients towards accident and emergency departments at times when GP surgeries are also closed? This will almost invariably increase NHS costs in the medium term. Or is the Government’s strategy to blame local clinicians for cuts in NHS services?

My Lords, the Government’s clear policy is that people should be able to rely on high-quality, 24/7 urgent and emergency care that is right for them, when they need it. That is our starting point.

I say to the noble Lord that since walk-in centres were invented the array of services available to patients has been considerably enhanced. It is not just a case of going to an A and E department as an alternative. There are now many GP health centres, minor injuries units, urgent care centres and, in the extreme case, ambulance services, so I do not necessarily accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have a colleague who went to the Victoria walk-in centre and found it closed? She went, in the end, to St Thomas’s. The whole procedure took her four hours. She had a urinary infection. Many of the people who go to these centres are working people who come up to cities and are away from their home environment.

My Lords, I am sorry to hear of the experience of the noble Baroness’s friend. I asked my officials to let me know which walk-in centres were available within striking distance of this building. There are, in fact, five NHS walk-in centres in or very near central London. I am aware of another privately run centre as well. A quick search on NHS choices will bring you to a menu of options.

My Lords, will the Minister tell me whether all general medical practitioners have surgeries where you can walk in at some time of the day? That would take quite a load off people. Is that an obligation? My practice has this and it is marvellous. You can go in at 8.30 on any morning and will be seen if you are an emergency. Is that common? Is there a need for more of that?

Many GP surgeries have extended opening hours. Some have walk-in centres attached to them but there is no general rule about that. The decision to open on an extended-hours basis is voluntary for GPs.

Does the Minister share my surprise that data are not available for the number of closures of such walk-in centres in the past two years?

My Lords, no. The previous Government did not collect the figures and we have chosen not to either. This is a decision for local commissioners and there is a limit to the extent that we can require the NHS to fill in forms and send them to Richmond House.

My Lords, no one doubts the worth of walk-in centres or minor injury units. It is well established, but we need to know where they are. Will the noble Earl tell the House how often the information on the Department of Health website is updated? Who is responsible? Will he please pass on the message that it is woefully out of date and inaccurate, thus defeating its object?

I can only express my gratitude to my noble friend for pointing that out. I will ask my officials to review the information provided on the DoH website and to ensure that it is as up to date as possible.

My Lords, reverting to the earlier question about access to GPs, I hope that the NHS and the Minister will have information on the length of waiting times for patients to see their doctors. Indeed, we had questions on this issue earlier in the year. What steps have been taken to reduce the ever-increasing length of waiting lists to see doctors, particularly in the London area?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point. I am aware that in certain parts of the country there is considerable concern about the length of time that patients sometimes need to wait for a GP appointment. However, that is not the case all over the country. We expect GP practices to configure themselves so as to ensure that the waiting time is kept to a minimum. It is an area on which we are working closely with the profession to resolve.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea if more GP practices were open on Saturdays?

In many areas that is an entirely valid observation. Commissioners are saying to GP practices that they expect them to respond to the needs of their local patient populations. If Saturday opening makes sense in that context, they should seriously consider it.

The Minister knows that there are patients who are suffering acute symptoms from prescribed-drug addiction and withdrawal, as well as from taking illegal drugs. Some of those people are in great distress. Where should they go now in the NHS if they suffer these acute symptoms?

My Lords, if they are acutely ill and it is an emergency, they should go to an A and E department.