Therese Coffey orders England's GPs to see patients within two weeks

Urgent cases will be seen the same day under the Plan for Patients, which will call on volunteers to step up and 'do their bit'

The initiative aims to ensure patients are given an appointment within two weeks. Getty
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Everyone who wants a doctor’s appointment in England should be given one within two weeks, with urgent cases seen the same day, under plans to overhaul the National Health Service.

The so-called Plan for Patients will ask the public to step up and “do their bit”, calling on a million volunteers who helped during the Covid-19 pandemic to do so again.

Patients will also be able to check how their local surgeries are performing in new “league tables”.

Pharmacies will manage the supply of more medicine such as contraception without a prescription. They will also take referrals from emergency care for minor illness or symptoms such as cough, headache or sore throat.

This could free up a further two million appointments every year and reduce the burden on GPS, officials have estimated.

Newly appointed Health Secretary Therese Coffey said some GP practices “seemed to be struggling” to give their patients appointments.

She said patients should ideally receive an appointment within two weeks, or the same day if their case is urgent.

But Ms Coffey told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday morning that the goal was an expectation, not a guarantee.

“Patients are my top priority. And that is clear in this plan,” she said.

Ms Coffey said the "league tables" would allow patients "to see, perhaps more locally, where the service levels are better" at other surgeries.

"[We are] shifting possibilities for people to go to other parts of the NHS, whether that's the community pharmacies or [seeing] what we can do too, and giving doctors the opportunity to use some of the funding they cannot use today in order to recruit different staff to free up appointments," she said.

Ms Coffey told Times Radio “it will be down to clinicians, of course, to those doctors doing that triage, on who they see on the same day and their prioritisation".

“I think it’s fair that patients, when they ring up, not being told that they have to wait six weeks for appointments potentially, and that’s when we’re seeing other people turn to the parts of the NHS like A&E [accident and emergency].”

But leading GPs have criticised the changes, saying they will have "minimal impact" on patient care.

Publishing "league tables" of surgeries would not "improve access or standards of care", the Royal College of GPs said.

Beccy Baird, senior fellow at the English health charity 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".

"Setting new expectations and targets will not suddenly increase the capacity in general practice," she said.

Ms Coffey will tell Parliament that more assistants and advanced nurse practitioners are to be employed to free up valuable GP time. She will say the government will "free up funding" for practices to do this, but officials have not outlined how much money will be made available.

New telephone systems will also help to ease the 8am scramble for appointments.

Newly appointed Health Secretary Therese Coffey said the changes would reduce the burden on GPs, freeing them up to see more patients. Reuters

The systems, already used by some surgeries, will mean that patients are not automatically cut off if there is no one available to take their call. Patients will be told their place in the queue and possibly asked a few simple questions or offered information about practice opening times while waiting.

NHS Digital figures show that 15 per cent — 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.

Government officials have estimated 1.2 million appointments each year can be handled by other surgery staff.

GP assistants carry out administrative tasks and sometimes they can carry out basic clinical duties. Advanced nurse practitioners are registered nurses with extra qualifications who can help to treat patients.

The plan, which has not yet been published, will be unveiled in the House of Commons on Thursday.

Ms Coffey is also going to try to rally the NHS army of volunteers who provided support during the Covid-19 pandemic to support the NHS and social care sectors.

"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," Amanda Pritchard, NHS England chief executive, said.

Prof Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said it was a shame Ms Coffey did not talk to the college and its members on the front line before her announcement.

"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," he said.

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

Updated: September 22, 2022, 8:17 AM