The health secretary promises to tackle access to GPs and keep the emergency target

The health secretary promises to tackle access to GPs and keep the emergency target

Health and Social Care Secretary Therese Coffey (left) during her visit to The Marven Surgery in London (Kirsty O'Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

Health and Social Care Secretary Therese Coffey (left) during her visit to The Marven Surgery in London (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

The health secretary has promised a “laser-like” focus on NHS problems as she laid out plans for patients to see a GP within two weeks and committed to keeping the four-hour emergency target.

Therese Coffey told MPs that “most of the time patients have a good experience, but we must not write off the problems we face”, as she noted “too much variation in the access and care people get across the country”.

Our plan for patients put before Parliament means patients will be able to see how well their GP practice is performing compared to others, potentially allowing them to join another.

The health secretary said a range of workers – such as pharmacists, GP assistants and advanced practice nurses – would be used to ease the burden on GPs, while urgent cases should be seen on the same day.

In her speech to MPs, Ms Coffey also pledged her commitment to a four-hour emergency target for people to be admitted, transferred or discharged.

The target has not been reached since 2015. There have been four prime ministers in that time.

Coffey said she recently endured a nearly nine-hour wait in the emergency room, adding: “I can certainly say there will be no changes to the goal of a four-hour wait in the emergency room.

Just in July I went to the emergency room, I waited almost nine hours myself to see a doctor and I still got no treatment

Therese Coffey

“I think it matters, and I’ll give you a personal experience recently.

“Just in July, I went to the emergency room, I waited almost nine hours myself to see a doctor, and I still didn’t get any treatment.

“I was told to go back the next day so I went to another hospital just three miles away and I was seen and treated properly.

“That’s the kind of variation we see across the NHS.”

On ambulances stuck outside hospitals for hours because they are unable to handover patients, she promised “a laser-like focus on handover delays”.

Therese Coffey (left) talks to Dr Sheila Neogi during her visit to The Marven Surgery in London (Kirsty O'Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

Therese Coffey (left) talks to Dr Sheila Neogi during her visit to The Marven Surgery in London (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

She said 45% of ambulance handover delays occur in 15 NHS hospital trusts.

She said: “The local NHS will work intensively with these trusts to create more hospital capacity, the equivalent of 7,000 more beds by this winter, through a combination of freeing up beds with a focus on discharge, and people also staying at home and staying monitored remotely through the kind of technology that played such an important role during the pandemic.”

Coffey said a £500m fund would enable medically fit people to be discharged from hospital more quickly, supporting them to receive care in the community or in their own homes instead.

The number of 999 and NHS 111 call handlers will also be increased to answer calls more quickly, she told MPs.

Wes Streeting (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Wes Streeting (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Coffey also said the government will “explore the creation of an ambulance assistance service”.

She said the NHS “will need a real national endeavour”, adding that she wanted to draw on the “energy and enthusiasm” of people who volunteered during the pandemic.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting criticized Coffey’s “Sesame Street” plan as he questioned how the government will make it easier for patients to see a GP.

He told the House of Commons: “She says patients will be able to get a GP appointment within two weeks – her party scrapped the guarantee of a deal within two days that Labor introduced when we were in government and she made it clear this morning that this is not a warranty at all, just an expectation.

“What is the consequence if the GPs do not meet her expectations? Well, as we heard on the radio this morning, her message to patients is “get on your bike and find a new GP”. Should patients be grateful for this?”

Goals do not create more doctors

Helen Buckingham

The Royal College of GPs said it had not been consulted on the plans and league tables will not “improve access or standards of care”.

The King’s Fund said that GPs are struggling with demand and that “setting new expectations and targets will not suddenly increase capacity in general practice”.

Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said: “The truth is that we are chronically short of GPs and the number of GPs per person in England is falling year on year.

“Goals do not create more doctors.”

Our plan for patients document details how NHS pension rules will be changed to “retain more experienced NHS staff and remove barriers for staff returning from retirement”.

It said: “New retirement flexibilities will include a part-retirement option for employees to take their pension and continue to build it while working more flexibly, allowing retired employees to build up more pension if they return to service.”

Work will also be done to reduce the risk of NHS staff being subject to annual levy charges as a result of high inflation.

Retired or partially retired employees must be able to work without pension benefits being reduced or suspended, it says.

Coffey said a £500 million fund would enable medically fit people to be discharged from hospital faster (Kirsty O'Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

Coffey said a £500 million fund would enable medically fit people to be discharged from hospital faster (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

“By 2023, all trusts will also be required to offer pension recovery, meaning employer pension contributions can be offered in cash rather than as a top-up to pension funds, helping to retain senior staff who have reached the lifetime allowance for tax-free pension savings,” it said.

The government has also pledged to address variation in dental care and tackle “dental deserts”, saying it will make it easier for dentists who have trained overseas to practice in the NHS.

The number of call handlers will rise to 4,800 on NHS 111 and 2,500 on 999 by December, according to the plan.

Later, during a visit to a surgery, Coffey responded to former health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comments that while there was “a lot to welcome” in the new announcement, “the NHS (and GPs) need more targets as a hole in the head”.

Asked directly about the comments, she said: “I am very aware that Jeremy was health secretary for many years and is of course well versed and experienced in this regard.

– I think it is important to prioritize the patients, and getting an agreement is one of the biggest frustrations that many have raised with me and the Prime Minister during the summer.

Asked a similar question on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, junior health minister Robert Jenrick said plans for patients to see a GP within two weeks were an “expectation”, not a “target”.

– This is not a goal in the sense that it is something that is imposed on GPs, but it is an expectation. I think it’s fair to make.”

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