GPs in Greater Manchester have reacted with despair after the new Health Secretary announced plans demanding patients be given an appointment within two weeks.
Thérèse Coffey has pledged that patients with non-urgent health concerns will be handed appointments within 14 days, and a same-day urgent slot for those needing immediate care.
Ms Coffey also used her £500 million Our Plan for Patients to set out how the current 8am scramble for appointments could be eased, as the NHS rolls out new telephone systems.
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Doctors both locally in the region, and nationally, have criticised the plan, with one Oldham GP branding the move a 'sticking plaster' tactic to hide the wider issues in the health care system.
Patients in Greater Manchester have also criticised the plans, with many stating that two weeks is still too long to wait to get an appointment with a doctor.
Zahid Chauhan OBE is a Labour councillor and GP in Oldham. Speaking to the M.E.N he said the plans failed to address the underlying issues in the sector, such as low morale and a shortage of GPs.
"It's just another sticking plaster policy," he said. "Realistically, most patients will see their GP within two weeks at the moment, and if the problem is urgent we will do our best to see them on the same day."
NHS Digital figures show that 15% – 3.9 million – of the 25.9 million GP appointments made in England in August occurred at least two weeks after the appointment was made.
Dr Chauhan called for Thérèse Coffey to come and spend a day with his GP colleagues and receptionists as he labelled the plans set out in the House of Commons today as a 'political stunt.'
"The whole system is broken."
"They need to look at the reason for having the GP system," he said. "Patients don't just contact me because they are ill, they are contacting me because their surgery has been delayed by the hospital or because of the pressure on the social care system.
"A lot of people who come to the GP practice now are people who can't afford to eat or eat their home. We have a food bank at the practice that is being constantly topped up.
"The whole system is broken. I think people like Thérèse Coffey need to spend some time in a GP practice and to spend some time on reception and see what they have to deal with."
The Health Secretary also set out plans to use data so that patients can see how their GP practice performs, compared to others - a move which has been slammed by medical leaders.
A new telephone system which will mean patients are not automatically cut off if there is no-one available to take their call is also set to be introduced under the proposals. Patients will be told their place in the queue and asked a few questions or offered information about practice opening times while waiting.
Changes are also set to be me made to NHS pension rules to retain more experienced NHS clinicians and remove the barriers to staff returning from retirement.
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said: "The truth is that we are chronically short of GPs, with the number of GPs per person in England falling year after year. Targets don’t create any more doctors."
Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told the government to "rethink" the new two-week access target for general practice as he also called for more doctors in the NHS.
"There is a huge bashing of GPs."
He said: "It is not more targets the NHS needs, it is more doctors. When it comes to the workforce plan that she recommitted to – and I welcome her commitment to publishing it – could she tell the House will it have hard numbers so that we know how many doctors we are going to need in 10, 15, 20 years’ time, and whether we are actually training them?"
Dr Chauhan said as well as a lack of new GPs, many of his colleagues were leaving the sector in their droves to work abroad or in other areas due to the abuse they receive on a daily basis.
"There is a huge bashing of GPs going on which is leading to abuse," he said. "People are leaving to work abroad. Why should they here and put up with the abuse?
"There is a colleague of mine in Manchester who was physically assaulted. People get abused because of the problems caused by the wider issues of the system.
"Every government comes in and proposes a new plan which is not actually new. It's all just buzzwords. Instead of putting a sticking plaster on, there needs to be a long term plan."
Dr Siobhan Brennan, who is a partner at a medical practice in Stockport, said of the new proposals: "It's all white noise. No money promised to GPs."
The new plans have too been met with scepticism by some patients in Greater Manchester, many who feel they don't go far enough to ease the pressures on the NHS.
One M.E.N reader said: "Government can't promise that. We are desperately short of Drs and Nurses are they going to do something about that?
Another said: "Two weeks? No point going to an appointment if it's in two weeks time. This is not a third world country and the government need to stop pretending that it is. We pay our bit to the NHS and I bet most of us try everything we can before actually ringing the doctor."
One patient, who claims they've not been able to see a GP since before Covid, said: "When you do ring for an appointment you're told to ring back the next day and they will see if you can have a telephone consultations. And they wonder why hospital A&E is so over stretched and busy."
"We are losing qualified GPs."
Another said: "I’ve rang my doctors surgery over 100 times in the past 3 days and it’s constantly engaged."
According to The British Medical Association, as of August 2022, there were 36,752 fully qualified GPs working in the NHS in England, which is 1,850 fewer GPs compared to September 2015.
They said today's announcement had been made 'without proper discussion with staff,' adding: "We are losing more fully qualified GP hours than we can recruit and this combined with the cost of living increasing demand for services is exacerbating pressures on an already overstretched workforce."
The new measures introduced by the Health Secretary will also prioritise ambulances, hospital appointment backlogs, and dentists. Outlining her plans, Ms Coffey said: "Patients are my top priority and I will be their champion, focusing on the issues that most affect them or their loved ones.
"Most of the time patients have a great experience, but we must not paper over the problems that we face. We expect backlogs to rise before they fall as more patients come forward for diagnosis and treatment after the pandemic."
Prime Minister Liz Truss said: "On the steps of Downing Street this month, I pledged that one of my earliest priorities as Prime Minister would be to put our health and care system on a firm footing.
"These measures are the first part of that plan and will help the country through the winter and beyond. Ultimately my mission in government is to grow our economy, because that is the best way to support the NHS and social care system and ensure patients are receiving the frontline services they deserve."
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