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GP Access

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the delays experienced by patients trying to access their GP.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I remind the House of my interest as a member of the General Medical Council.

The Government remain committed to improving access to general practice. This will be done by increasing capacity to deliver appointments. We spent £520 million to improve access and expand general practice capacity during the pandemic. This was in addition to £1.5 billion announced in 2020 to create an additional 50 million general practice appointments by 2024. To help manage demand and help patients to get timely access, we have improved the telephone system available for all practices. This improved functionality has helped them to free up existing phone lines for incoming calls and is available at no additional costs to practices until the end of April 2023 while we work on long-term solutions.

My Lords, the Minister’s Answer seems a long way from the reality. Every day, patients have great difficulty in getting access to their GPs. It is also clear that the profession is highly demoralised, with many wanting to retire early. Only a few weeks ago, this House voted to ask the Government to develop a long-term workforce strategy, funded for the NHS. Why did the Government consistently turn that down?

I am sure the noble Lord will remember from the debates on the Health and Care Bill that that Act provides for workforce plans every five years. In addition, Health Education England has been commissioned to do work on workforce needs of a much more decentralised nature, rather than top-down from Whitehall and Westminster: at the trust level and the CCG level and, in future, at the ICS level to look at needs and the mix of skills that are needed to serve local populations.

My Lords, following on from the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, does the Minister agree that there is a need to rethink the model of primary and community care in the light of shortages, and considering that more and more GPs are now providing only private healthcare—at the last count, there were 1,500 of them—and 57% of GPs are working three days a week or fewer?

There are indeed a number of challenges. One is that many GPs are nearing retirement age and some are worried that their pension will be affected if they carry on working. Also, as an IPPR report recently said, the nature of illness and patient expectations have changed but the model of care has remained the same throughout. We expect five-minute appointments with referrals, but what we need in primary care is a much more networked model, with GPs, nurses, mental health officials, pharmacists, link workers and charities providing a joined-up service so that it does not always have to be the GP.

My Lords, since 2016 the number of GPs in Devon has fallen by 7%, whereas the number of patients has increased by 14%. When does the Minister expect the 2016 GP/patient ratio to be the norm?

I apologise, I did not exactly get the nature of the noble Baroness’s question, but I understand about some issues in Devon. Clearly, there are areas of the country where there is more of a challenge. One solution being looked at is how we make sure that doctors are trained close to areas where there are shortages. Research has shown in some cases that people tend to stay in the area in which they were trained, and we have opened new medical schools. However, that will not be an overnight solution as we have to wait for doctors to be trained. Some solutions will be short-term and some will be long-term.

My Lords, I am pleased to see that since last July there have already been 1 million scans, tests and checks delivered by the new community diagnostic centres. Can the Minister give us some idea of how these centres are going to improve capacity and the quality of care in our GP services, which we have already heard are under so much pressure?

I thank my noble friend for that question and for highlighting the role of community diagnostic centres. When we look at the backlog and the waiting lists, about 80% of the waiting list is for diagnosis, not necessarily surgery. Of course, once they have been diagnosed, some of those people will require surgery. After that, about 80% of those who require surgery will not require an overnight stay. They can be daily in-patients, as it were. The role that CDCs will play in trying to tackle that backlog is to encourage more diagnosis in the community, so rather than people having to go to NHS settings, diagnosis will go to the people in shopping centres and football stadiums.

My Lords, this is national Carers Week, and I am sure the whole House will want to pay tribute to the tremendous work our 6 million unpaid carers do, often at great cost to their own health and well-being. This week’s Carers UK survey highlights the alarming neglect by carers of their own health, be it mental health conditions, long-term illness or disabilities, or putting off treatment because of their caring duties, like the carer who delayed a hysterectomy for five months because of the urgent care needs of the loved one she was caring for. The Carers UK survey shows that only 23% of carers are offered health checks for themselves when they phone the GP’s surgery to make their loved one’s appointments. Rather than just flagging up on the system that a person is a carer, what action will the Government take to ensure that GP surgeries are able to do much more to monitor carers’ health and well-being and what guidance will be issued on this important matter?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point, as does the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, who frequently champions the role of unpaid carers. The new model of primary care is taking on some of the services that were previously provided by secondary care, and it will be a more modern, networked service. Clearly, part of that mix, not only in primary care but at the ICS level, will be how we make sure that we have a proper integrated health and care system and how we can help carers and make sure that they are looked after while they provide a service for people.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many GPs’ surgeries made it clear during Covid-19 that they did not want patients who might have coronavirus coming to them? Does the Minister realise that many early diagnoses of seriously ill patients, including those with cancer, have been missed, putting extra pressure on everyone involved at present?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. Because of the focus on Covid and making sure we were keeping everyone safe, especially before we had a vaccine, precautions clearly had to be put in place. Of course, at the time it seemed eminently sensible to make sure that doctors and patients were protected. As the noble Baroness rightly highlights, the unintended consequence of this has been a backlog in seeing other patients. One of the things we are doing is making sure that, as we roll out these community diagnostic centres and modernise primary care, we can see patients in a more timely way. The GP does not necessarily have to be the first point of contact.

My Lords, how are the Government measuring and reporting retention levels of clinical staff in the NHS? This is one of the ways that will enable us to assess the effectiveness of the measures the Minister has said the Government are putting in place.

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for the question. The important point is that sometimes the assessment is done at a local level, sometimes it is done at an overall level and sometimes the department gathers the statistics. As we modernise and digitise the system, a lot more of that information will be able to be processed centrally, so that we can understand where we need to have better planning and to redeploy resources to meet the needs in certain areas.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned pensions. I urge him to speak to his colleagues in the Treasury about the own goal being created by the pension rules. Doctors are being hit with an annual allowance, but the lifetime allowance is then driving early retirement, with a simple 20-times multiple making it worth while for them to retire in their 50s, as soon as they can, rather than wait for a penal tax charge on a higher pension later.

I thank my noble friend for the question. A request I have often had at this Dispatch Box is to go and speak to my colleagues in the Treasury. We understand that early retirements are a key factor impacting GP retention. If you look at the demographics of the workforce, there are people close to retirement age who are saying, “I’m burnt out after Covid, and therefore I want an easier life.” Clearly, the other issue we are looking at is the lifetime allowance. There are some instances where the GPs may be better off staying in, but we have to make that quite clear. There has not yet been communication. We continue to engage with the Treasury on a variety of issues, and I hope to continue doing so.

My Lords, over the last five years the number of registered patients in England has increased, while the number of GPs has dropped by 5%. That has now resulted in a 12% increase in the number of patients per GP. No wonder there is pressure. I return to the original Question from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt: when will the Government provide proper workforce planning for GPs?

I acknowledge the noble Lord for giving way to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and at the same time I welcome the noble Baroness in person. I hope I will not regret saying that. We had these debates on the workforce during the passage of the Health and Care Act. In that Act there are provisions for workforce planning. At the same time, Health Education England is also putting together plans, and at a local level—rather than a top-down, almost Soviet-style planning system—we are looking at local workforce challenges.