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Simon Meechan

'Plan for Patients' aims to cut NHS appointment waiting times and recruit one million volunteers

New plans for England's NHS aim to offer non-urgent appointments in under two week, end the daily "scramble" for appointments and bring one million volunteers into the health service.

Health Secretary Therese Coffey's “Plan for Patients” pledges to offer "easier access to the NHS and social care this winter and next". It promises to address priorities that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) says are most important to patients, including "ambulances, backlogs, care and doctors and dentists".

Among the measures is a package to improve access to GPs to ensure everybody gets non-urgent appointments within two weeks. NHS figures show that 15% of August 2022 GP appointments occurred more than two weeks after the patient called.

Read more: Change in sleeping patterns could be a dementia warning sign, doctors say

The Health Secretary - who has a PhD in Chemistry so is referred to as Dr Coffey by the DHSC but has not worked as a medical professional - said the plan will tackle the morning scramble on telephones for GP appointments by introducing a new system.

The plan - expected to be published in full on Thursday - urges volunteers who stepped forward during the Coronavirus pandemic to "do their bit" by working for free again in the winter.

The DHSC said: "As part of Our Plan for Patients, Dr Coffey will also call on the public to take part in a “national endeavor” to support the health and social care system, calling on the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS to come forward again. This will include a push for more volunteering across the NHS and social care."

Dr Coffey, who joined confectionary company Mars after completing her PhD, said: “I will put a laser-like focus on the needs of patients, making their priorities my priorities and being a champion for them on the issues that affect them most,” she is expected to say.

“Our Plan for Patients will make it easier to get a general practice appointment and we will work tirelessly to deliver that, alongside supporting our hardworking GP teams.

“We know this winter will be tough and this is just the first step in our work to bolster our valued NHS and social care services so people can get the care they need.”

There are also proposals to introduce 'league tables' for GP surgeries, which leading doctors have slammed.

Beccy Baird, senior fellow at the King’s Fund, said the demand for appointments “has been rising inexorably and services have been struggling to meet that demand for some time”.

She added: “Setting new expectations and targets will not suddenly increase the capacity in general practice.”

Commenting on the plans, Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “It’s a shame that the Health Secretary didn’t talk to the College and to our members on the front line before making her announcement because we could have informed her of what is really needed to ensure a GP service that meets the needs of patients and is fit for the future.

“Lumbering a struggling service with more expectations, without a plan as to how to deliver them, will only serve to add to the intense workload and workforce pressures GPs and our teams are facing, whilst having minimal impact on the care our patients receive.

“Whilst we support transparency we strongly caution against the creation of ‘league tables, which we know from international research evidence do not work in improving access to or standards of care.”

Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust think tank, added: “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.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting added: “With the last Labour government, patients were guaranteed a GP appointment within 48 hours until the Conservatives scrapped it – the Conservatives promising to solve the difficulties patients face in getting a GP appointment is like the arsonists promising to put out the fire.”

NHS boss Amanda Pritchard said the health service will work with the Government to support the plan.

She said: “I know how much patients value timely, convenient access to GPs and primary care, the front door to the NHS, which is why we are continuing to drive improvements, including new roles to better meet patients’ needs and new tech to make contacting your local surgery easier.

“NHS staff are working incredibly hard to deliver record numbers of GP appointments for patients, with 11 million more this year so far than the same period last year, and more than four in five people who need an appointment seen within two weeks, including more than two-fifths within one day.

“We will work with the Government so we can support NHS staff to deliver these new ambitions for patients, underpinned by the development of a long-term workforce plan.”

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