GPs ‘named and shamed’ if they fail to see patients face to face

GP surgeries will be “named and shamed” if they fail to offer sufficient face-to-face appointments as part of a major NHS drive to improve access for patients.

On Thursday, the Government will unveil a blueprint for doctors that includes an extra £250 million for general practices to increase capacity over the winter.

Practices will be told they must “respect preferences” for face-to-face care and should consider using the cash to extend opening hours and offer walk-in consultations to allow more patients to see a GP in person. Those failing to offer sufficient in-person appointments will be denied access to the fund.

The measures, to be announced by Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, also include a review of social distancing at GP surgeries – rules said to be hampering patients’ ability to see a doctor in person.

Announcing the scheme, Mr Javid will say he is “determined to ensure patients can see their GP in the way they want, no matter where they live”. He will add: “This will tackle underperformance, taking pressure off staff so they can spend more time with patients and increase the number of face-to-face appointments.”

The number of face-to-face GP appointments has fallen dramatically since the start of the pandemic and has failed to recover. The latest monthly data showed that only 58 per cent of appointments took place in surgeries – down from 80 per cent of all consultations before the Covid crisis.

The true number is likely to be lower, with The Telegraph revealing this week that some telephone consultations are being counted as face-to-face meetings. Campaigners and patients’ groups have warned that many vulnerable people have been unable to access care, with coroners linking a series of deaths to remote appointments.

A key part of Mr Javid’s blueprint will, from next spring, see GP surgery appointment data published to help the NHS increase oversight of practices with “the most acute issues in relation to access”. Currently, the data is only focused on large clinical commissioning groups, meaning individual surgeries failing to offer face-to-face appointments do not face scrutiny.

Patients will also be able to rate their general practice by text message in a new survey scheme being piloted in around 60 surgeries. It will be rolled out across the country next year.

Critics of the plan said it amounted to “naming and shaming” surgeries that do not offer enough face-to-face appointments.

General practices will be asked to devise local plans for increasing in-person consultations, with money available from the new funding pot. Greater use of pharmacists, paramedics, advanced nurse practitioners and nursing associates are also set to form part of the solution.

Mr Javid paid tribute to GPs and their teams for their “enormous efforts in the most challenging times in living memory” after delivering 300 million appointments in the past year and performing the majority of Covid vaccinations.

A “zero tolerance” campaign to tackle abuse and harassment of staff at surgeries will also be devised by the NHS in partnership with the Government and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. An extra £5 million of funding to provide security at GP sites, including CCTV cameras, will also be announced after GPs reported unacceptable abuse.

It is understood that Mr Javid wants to introduce a new covenant for NHS workers, setting out the Government’s commitment to them. He introduced a similar covenant for police officers during his time as Home Secretary.

But Dr John Hughes, chairman of grassroots campaign group GP Survival, said: “There’s never any money without major strings attached”, calling the plan to publish GP surgery level data “inappropriate” and saying it could “name and shame practices”.

Steve Brine, a former Tory health minister, welcomed the push for greater transparency, as a “good thing” as long as it helped improve access to in-person care. Mr Brine argued that it should not be viewed as “naming and shaming” surgeries but as a positive move to drive up standards in partnership with GPs.

The role of pharmacists is set to be elevated in order to relieve some of the workload burden on GPs. NHS England is examining a scheme in Scotland, called Pharmacy First, that allows pharmacists to pick up more of doctors’ work, including handing out prescriptions. Pilots are under way.

In a further bid to reduce the administrative burdens on GPs and free up more time for appointments, the NHS will widen the circle of professionals that can provide medical evidence and certificates such as fit notes and DVLA checks. Money will be spent on upgrading telephone systems so patients can speak to surgery staff more easily and avoid long waits.

Amanda Pritchard, the newly appointed chief executive of the NHS, said it was a “personal priority” to improve access to high-quality general practice, adding that the health service was “taking both urgent and longer-term action to back GPs and their teams with additional investment and support”.

But on Wednesday night the British Medical Association (BMA) said it was “hugely dismayed” at the rescue package and claimed it showed the Government was “out of touch” with the GP crisis.

Dr Richard Vautrey, the BMA GP committee chairman, said: “Throughout our discussions with ministers and NHS England in recent weeks, the BMA has been clear that without a concerted effort to reduce bureaucracy, admin and red tape in practices, patient access and care was at risk.

“Unfortunately, this offer merely tinkers around the edges and will not reduce the unnecessary burden practices carry and and therefore free up any more time for doctors to see more patients.”

He added that GPs would be “horrified” that the package is being presented as a “lifeline.. when in reality it could sink the ship all together”.