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Recovering Access to Primary Care

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 9 May 2023


My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place:

“Madam Deputy Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on the primary care recovery plan. For most of us, general practice is our front-door to the NHS. In the last six months, over half the UK population has used GP services, and GPs in England carry out around 1 million appointments every single day. They are doing more than ever. General practice is delivering 10% more appointments a month than before the pandemic; the equivalent of the average GP surgery sees an additional 20 patients every working day. There are more staff than ever, with numbers up by a quarter since 2019, and we are on track to deliver our manifesto target, with an additional 25,000 staff already recruited into primary care. We are investing more than ever, too, with the most recent figures showing that funding was around a fifth higher than five years before, even once inflation is taken into account.

But we know that there is a great deal still to do. Covid-19 presented many challenges across the health service, leaving us with large numbers of people on NHS waiting lists, which need to be tackled. In general practice, patient contacts with GPs have increased between 20% and 40% since the pandemic. As well as recovering from the pandemic, we face longer-term challenges, too. Since 2010, the number of people aged 70 and above has increased by a third, and this group attends five times more GP appointments than young people. Not only that, but advances in technology and treatments mean that people understandably expect more from primary care systems.

Today I can announce our primary care recovery plan, and I pay tribute to my honourable friend the Member for Harborough for this plan. I have deposited copies of the plan in the Libraries of both Houses. Our plan will enable us to better recover from the pandemic, to cut NHS waiting lists and to make the most of the opportunities ahead by focusing on three key areas: first, tackling the 8 am rush by giving GPs new digital tools; secondly, freeing up GP appointments by funding pharmacists to do more, with a Pharmacy First approach; and, thirdly, providing more GPs’ staff and more appointments. NHS England and my department have committed to make over £1.2 billion of funding available to support the plan, in addition to the significant real-terms increases in spending on general practice in recent years. Taken together, our plan will make it easier for people to get the help they need.

The plan builds on lots of other important work. Last year, we launched the elective recovery plan, which is making big strides to reduce the backlog brought by Covid-19. We eliminated nearly all wait lists over two years by last July, and 18-month waits have now decreased by over 90% since their peak in September 2021. By contrast, in the NHS in Labour-run Wales, people are twice as likely to be waiting for treatment than in England. They still have over 41,000 people waiting over two years and nearly 80,000 waiting over 18 months.

In addition, this January, I came before the House to launch our urgent and emergency care plan, which is focused on how to better manage pressures in emergency departments, with funding to support discharge to improve patient flow in hospitals. Today’s plan is the next important piece of work.

Turning to the detail of the plan, our first aim is to tackle the 8 am rush. We will do this by providing GPs with new and better technology, moving us from an analogue approach to ways of working in the digital age. An average-sized GP practice will get 100 calls in the first hour of a Monday morning, but no team of receptionists, no matter how hard-working, can handle such demand. About half of GPs are still on old analogue phones, meaning that when things get busy, people get engaged tones. We are changing this by investing in modern phone systems for all GPs, including features such as call-back options, and by improving the digital front-door for even more patients. In the GP practices that have already adopted those systems, there has been a 30% improvement in patient feedback on their ability to access the appointments they need. This also reflects the fact that online requests can help find the right person within the practice, such as being directed to a pharmacist for a medicine prescription review or to a physio for back pain.

In doing so, we will make the most of the 25,000 more staff we now have in primary care. Today’s plans fund practices without this technology to adopt it, while also providing them with staff cover to help them manage a smooth transition into this technology. Indeed, many small GP practices find it hardest to fund new technology, or to manage the disruption that comes with transitioning to new ways of working, so we are funding locum cover alongside the tech itself. Notwithstanding that, people will always be able to walk in or ring if they prefer; if someone wants to ring up and see someone face to face, these investments will make that easier, too.

We also want to make sure that patients know how their request is going to be handled on the same day that they make contact. Clinically urgent issues will be assessed on the same day, or the next day if raised in the afternoon. If the issue is not urgent, an appointment will be scheduled within two weeks, but, crucially, people will not be asked to call back tomorrow. Instead, they will get their appointments booked on the same day or be signposted to other services.

The second area of this plan is Pharmacy First. As well as giving GPs new technology, I know that we need to take pressure off GPs where possible by making better use of the skills of all clinicians working in primary care. We saw the incredible role that pharmacists played during the pandemic—their capacity to innovate and deliver for the communities that they served, freeing up GP appointments in doing so—so the second part of our plan is to introduce a new NHS service, Pharmacy First, on which we are already consulting with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee.

Some 80% of people live within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy, so making it easier for pharmacists to take referrals can have a huge impact. Referrals might be from GPs, NHS 111 or, from next week, urgent and emergency care settings. Community pharmacists already take referrals for a range of minor conditions, such as diarrhoea, vomiting and conjunctivitis, but with our Pharmacy First approach we can go further still. We will invest up to £645 million over the next two years so that pharmacists can supply prescription-only medicines for common conditions, such as ear pain, UTIs and sore throats, without requiring a prescription from a GP.

One of the most significant shifts we are making is in oral contraception. Pharmacists can already manage the supply of contraception prescribed elsewhere; from later this year, they will also be able to start women on courses of oral contraception. This is another way in which we aim to reduce the barriers to women accessing contraception, in light of our women’s health strategy. Pharmacists will also be able to do more blood pressure checks, which is one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Not only will those kinds of steps make it easier for people to get the care they need; we expect that they will release up to 10 million appointments a year by 2024-25.

The third part of our plan is about providing more staff and more appointments. We are making huge investments in our primary care workforce, and are on track to meet the manifesto commitment of 26,000 more primary care staff by next March, meaning that we have more pharmacists, physios and paramedics delivering appointments in primary care than ever before. In 2021, we hit our target of 4,000 people accepting GP training places, and our upcoming NHS workforce plan will set out how we will further expand GP training. We are also helping to retain senior GPs by reforming pension rules, lifting 9,000 GPs out of annual tax changes. These are the pension reforms that the British Medical Association welcomed, describing them as ‘significant’ and ‘decisive’ changes and citing them as ‘transformative for the NHS’.

As well as freeing up more staff time, our plan cuts bureaucracy, too, so that GPs spend less time on paperwork and more time caring for patients. We will remove unnecessary targets, improve communication between GPs and hospitals, and reduce the amount of non-GP work that GPs are being asked to do. For example, patients are often discharged from hospital without fit notes, meaning that they then have to go to their GP to get one. By the end of this year, NHS secondary care services, which understand those patient conditions better, will be able to issue fit notes, and we have streamlined the number of targets on primary care networks from 36 down to just five. Taken together, this work will free up around £37,000 per practice.

Today’s primary care recovery plan funds and empowers our GPs and pharmacists to do more, so that we can prevent ill health, keep cutting NHS waiting lists and improve that vital front door to the NHS for many millions of people. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for reading out the Statement. No one can be in any doubt that patient access to primary care needs a great deal of recovering from the dire situation patients across the country find themselves in today. Millions of patients wait more than a month to see a GP—if they can get an appointment at all. Some 65% of the public think that access to GP services is getting worse, and over 40% report that they have to wait too long to see a GP. The 9 am rush and scramble to get an appointment, or even a response, is the reality for thousands of patients each day. Often, they are waiting in pain and discomfort, unable to go about their daily normal lives. While they wait, an illness goes undiagnosed and untreated, potentially getting ever more serious.

In today’s Statement the Government once again recognise the major role community pharmacies can play in relieving the pressure on GP appointments and primary care. As we have made clear, we fully support and welcome this extended role, including allowing pharmacies to provide prescriptions and routine health checks, and opening up more referral routes to NHS specialists, such as physios for back pain. However, only yesterday in the national media we heard that 670 community pharmacies have closed and the number of pharmacies across England is now the lowest since 2015, and about the impact caused by rising costs, major staff shortages and the 30% cut in government funding to date—all despite growing demand for services. The industry estimates a £1.1 billion funding shortfall each year, and that last year was the worst ever. Does the Minister acknowledge that, for many, today’s plan is too little too late when it comes to fixing the crisis in primary care?

The independent think tank the Health Foundation sums up the Government’s overall plan, saying that it

“falls well short of addressing the fundamental issues”

facing general practice. Of course, the key reason demand for GP services is so high is the sheer number of people on NHS waiting lists. The president of the Royal College of General Practitioners said recently:

“Patients are developing cancers and enduring so much pain that they cannot climb stairs”.

Do the Government acknowledge that, unless they urgently get a grip on waiting lists, the crisis in general practice will only deepen?

More phone lines and better mood music will not fix the fundamental issue: the shortage of GPs. Their numbers have been cut by 2,000 since 2015, and now the Government have abandoned their own target of 6,000 extra GPs by next year. The proposal to ease the current burden on hard-pressed GP reception staff with a £240 million investment in phone and call systems technology over the coming years is welcome, but does the Minister really think that this is a proportionate or urgent enough response to the scale of the crisis? Is the money for the new care navigator staff included in this funding? What role will these new staff play in GP surgeries? When will we have a detailed breakdown of how the overall funding will be spent, and when it will be allocated and delivered?

Even the Government’s own Benches in this House have accused them of being in total denial about the crisis facing community pharmacies. Much now needs to be discussed by the PSNC, the Department of Health and NHS England regarding the promised funding in the recovery plan, and to try to address the crisis; I hope the Minister will keep us as up to date as possible. Can he provide more detail on how the proposed new services for the seven common conditions and oral contraception are envisaged to operate and interface with GP and other primary care services?

Finally, we come back to the question of the all-important workforce plan—what else? We heard from the Minister in Questions today that he now thinks that spring runs to the end of June. On the radio today, the Commons Minister promised that we would have it in a couple of months. As with every other health and social care service and profession we speak about in this House, workforce is core. Pharmacy locum costs have increased by 80% in the past year alone. So I have two simple questions: why is the promised, fully costed workforce plan taking so long, and when will it finally be published?

My Lords, I support the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, on the Statement. We on these Benches welcome the aspirational nature of what the Government are proposing. During the Covid pandemic, we all learned that community pharmacists play an absolutely key role in supporting the health system. In my personal experience of securing additional injections, I was very impressed by how well the whole NHS system worked in delivering the inoculation service through community pharmacies. One of the good things about it is that you can book a slot, in the same way you book a slot with a GP. However, for this to succeed—and to free up 30,000 GP slots, as the Government intend—booking an appointment with a pharmacist needs to be just as easy. We then need to be very clear about what pharmacists will do, and what GPs will no longer have a contractual obligation to do.

On the workforce shortages that have been referred to, it would help if the Minister could explain whether the manifesto commitment to deliver 26,000 more primary care staff by next March is deliverable. It is difficult to see how the Government will do that unless more money is made available, so I seek the Minister’s confirmation that more resource will be delivered on the back of this initiative to ensure that it happens.

I will ask the Minister three further questions. First, were patients of different backgrounds, genders and geographies involved in drawing up the plan, and can he outline the patient involvement? Secondly, is there sufficient qualified staff of all professions to deliver the multidisciplinary plan? Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, asked, when does the Minister does expect the new plan to be up and running?

I thank noble Lords for their comments and appreciate the general welcome for the tenets of the plan from all sides. I want to say that, rather than “too little, too late”, this is actually a plan that bolsters a service that is already on target for an increase of 50 million appointments from 2019—a service in which we are seeing a 10% increase per month versus pre-pandemic levels. I think that, on anyone’s reckoning, that is a pretty impressive achievement. The Pharmacy First plan that we talk about will free up another 10 million appointments a year in addition to that. Also, the use of digital technology will make it easier to get appointments and ensure that those who need them most can get them. It will ease the 8 am frustrations that we are all too aware of.

Addressing the comments on the pharmacy closures that have happened, this can only help pharmacists by increasing the income-generating services available to them and increasing the footfall into those pharmacies. This can only improve their income and so their overall viability. So I hope we will see, from all of this, an increase in the number of community pharmacies. To answer the point, we will be setting up booking systems so that you can digitally book your pharmacy appointment. Equally vital will be the use of the NHS app and other technologies, such as 111, to navigate through services, so you know when you should be booking an appointment with a doctor and when you should be booking it with a pharmacy. The use of technology will be a vital element in all that.

On the workforce, I absolutely acknowledge, as I think we all do, the importance of making sure we have the right workforce in place. That is why I think we are all pleased with and all supportive of the pension changes that will increase and retain the numbers of people. I am afraid I cannot give any more news on the date of the workforce announcement, but I can say that, as mentioned before, substantial work is going on in this place. Yes, we are committed to the increase of 26,000 staff, and this whole package has £1.2 billion of funding behind it, of which £645 million goes into the community Pharmacy First plan, because a vital part of all this, as noble Lords have said, is making sure that we have we have the qualified staff in place to do it.

So, I think we have a good plan here and it is probably best to hear what the industry has said. We have seen a welcome from across the board.

“This is the most significant investment in community pharmacy in well over a decade”

came from the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee. The Boots CEO said:

“We are really pleased … Our Boots pharmacy teams sit at the heart of communities, offering easy to access care and expert advice; it is great news that they’ll be able use their clinical expertise more widely to help patients”.

I really see this as a transformational step forward, united with the digital technology which will make huge differences. With that, I commend a plan that will make a real difference to patients and the services they receive from GPs in the community.

My Lords, I commend this plan most warmly. It has long been said that family doctors are the jewel in the NHS crown, but of course there has been a total transformation in the primary care team: it is not simply family doctors but a much more complex team, and the frustration so many of them feel is that they work to the minimum of their ability rather than the maximum. As I understand this, it will enable people to work to the maximum of their skills and use their training to extremely good effect.

The other great difficulty is that patients want to be treated like partners—they want information, they want contact—so opening up the opportunity to use pharmacies far more is going to be extraordinarily important. Will my noble friend say a little more about the contribution of the NHS app? Obviously, it will take time for people to be really comfortable with it, but it seems to me that this could be a transformational component in releasing family services and making them more available.

I thank my noble friend for her comments and completely agree that this plan is all about making sure that we are using our most skilled practitioners in the most effective way. We want to make sure that those people who really need to see a doctor get to see one when they need to, but that patients in need of other treatments that can be delivered by a community pharmacist, a nurse or some other medic, such as a physio, are seen by the right people. Fundamental to the navigation of all that is the use of technology and the NHS app, as my noble friend mentioned.

What I see is the app really helping inform people—giving them their patient records so they can do their own research and understand and take ownership of their own health. We all know that, just as we have seen in the space of banking and other areas, giving people ownership, so they can take control of their health, is fundamental. Once they are armed with that information, they can be helped to navigate to the point of most use. That is where I see fundamental change: it is an area where we will see such change in the way we all address our NHS services and look after our own health. I truly believe that it will be one of the most fundamental changes we will ever see in this space.

My Lords, there is much in the Statement that is welcome, but I know from my own time, many years ago, as a very junior Minister in the Department of Health, but also more recently, as Chancellor of the University of Greenwich, with the role we play in the training of pharmacists, that small, independent community pharmacists have a real challenge in finding the space and capacity to provide advice and assistance to clients in conditions of sufficient privacy. What proposals will the Government come forward with, and with what funding, to assist the small independents—we are not talking about Boots and the big guys and gals but about the small independent pharmacists? What capital assistance is going to be provided to the small community pharmacists on our high streets who can potentially play such an important role, to enable them to structure their premises in a way that enables them to give the information that the Government are suggesting they should give in preference to GPs?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. It is really making sure that the independents can play a very important role. It is, where necessary, making sure that whole-estate planning takes that into account. A lot of the work I have been doing with Minister O’Brien—he heads the GP space while I look after the capital space—is looking at how we can create the sorts of models where you can put pharmacies alongside GP surgeries, in many cases, and make sure that that capability is there. I freely admit that capital is at a premium within the system, so we have to be creative in the ways we use it, but the noble Lord is absolutely correct that this is a key way to make sure we have a network of independent pharmacies that can really serve their local community.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and put on record my gratitude to him and other junior Ministers who played a very important part in making sure that this initiative has been brought to fruition. I pay tribute to the local surgery in my own community in Norfolk, the Great Massingham and Docking surgery, where the receptionists are invariably incredibly patient and polite to everyone and the doctors are quite outstanding—they have a lot of very satisfied people in the community because of their attitude to local people who may have ailments. But, obviously, they are under pressure, and that is why I welcome the Government’s announcement on Pharmacy First and on recruiting new GPs. Can my noble friend tell the House whether the Government’s commitment to recruit an extra 6,000 GPs by the end of this Parliament is on course? Has the number of GPs in training increased? Can he just clarify those two points?

As the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, pointed out a moment ago, pharmacies are often at the centre of communities. Apart from anything else, pharmacists often have a really strong relationship with patients because they see them on a regular basis, understand their needs and see them consistently—which, unfortunately, is not always the case with doctors. That is why I support the Pharmacy First initiative, which could be a lifeline to a lot of pharmacies that are under pressure. They will be able to prescribe many more medicines, but can my noble friend tell the House whether they will be able to prescribe antibiotics for some of the conditions he mentioned? If that is the case, that would be a very positive extension to the services that they provide.

I thank my noble friend. As evidence of the good work that receptionists do under trying circumstances, in a recent survey 91% of patients said that their needs were met. On the target of having 6,000 extra GPs by the end of this Parliament, currently we have increased the number by 2,000 but, in all honesty, I think the feeling is that we will struggle to meet the 6,000 target—I believe that is something that Sajid Javid, as Minister, said before. But there is a 50% increase in the number of graduate trainees since 2014, with more than 4,000 currently in training. So we have made steps in the right direction, albeit not as far as we would hope.

On the supply of antibiotics, the idea behind this is that there will be certain agreed treatments that the pharmacist will be able to give. Clearly, UTIs is an example where you often need antibiotics to clear those up, and in those circumstances there will be agreed treatments that pharmacists can give: provided that, in the pharmacist’s judgment, the symptoms warrant it, the pharmacist will be able to enable the supply of antibiotics. On all those, this is a very positive way forward.

The Government’s housing policy is to build, or to have built, 300,000 new houses a year. Has that been factored into this announcement? Is it the Government’s view that these new houses are a problem for primary care provision, or can the Minister assure me that the funding formulas are sufficiently robust that new housing is seen as an opportunity for primary care?

The noble Lord is quite correct to point out that, where you have a number of new houses in a local community, you need to make sure that there are primary care services to serve them as well. Funnily enough, just today I was having a conversation with Housing Minister Maclean on this very subject, about changing the way that we look at Section 106 payments—or CIL payments, as they are called these days—to make sure that the provision of the primary care estate is one of the key elements that can be funded through that. I know that DLUHC colleagues are very much on board with that, because absolutely fundamental to the point that the noble Lord makes is that we need to make sure that, alongside the new housing, which we all agree is very important, there are sufficient primary care services as well.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement but regret that it concentrates on more GP and other ancillary services to meet rising demand rather than focusing on the causes of that rising demand. A major source of pressure on GPs is due to the complications of diabetes, yet inadequate action is being taken on obesity, often in the face of pressures from the food lobby. Similarly, the Minister talked about the rising number of over-70s—I should declare an interest—yet much of that pressure is due to elderly people failing to get adequate social care and falling back on general practice because they have nowhere else to go. Yet, over the last 13 years, the Conservative Government have absolutely run away from any sort of reform agenda for social care. Will the Minister comment on whether new phones are going to plug even the short-term pressure, and will he tell us what sustained long-term solutions to managing down the demand for GP and other ancillary services his Government are thinking of?

First, I completely agree with the noble Baroness’s point that prevention is better than cure—I think we would all subscribe to that—and that is what the Government’s manifesto pledge of five years’ more healthy life is all about. On how the app comes into that, it all comes down to people taking more control of their own health, such as by being able to receive reminders that it is time for their cervical smear or heart MoT, so that they can start to take ownership of their own health. Towards that, the community pharmacists have already provided 1 million blood pressure checks, through which 300,000 people were found to have high blood pressure. That is a prime example of where this expanded network really can get on to the prevention agenda, which we all agree is absolutely key to helping solve the health situation going forward.

Sitting suspended.