DAVID Cameron has promised “many more” family doctors after the general election in order to deliver a pledge of extended-hours access to a GP seven days a week for every NHS patient in England.
Doctors’ leaders warned that there would need to be significant additional funds and staffing to implement the pledge, announced by the Prime Minister at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
But Mr Cameron insisted that 8am-8pm opening, weekdays and weekends, was already in place for 7 million patients after the launch last year of a £50 million fund in selected surgeries.
He announced a further £100 million to ensure that at least 10 million are covered in 2015, and a further £400 million is earmarked to make the extended service nationwide over the five years following next May’s election.
Mr Cameron told ITV1’s Good Morning Britain: “I think our health service is performing well and it is a testament to the doctors and nurses and all the other staff who work in our NHS, which is a national treasure.
“It’s one of the things I care most about in politics and I am really pleased today to be able to signal what you will get from a Conservative government in terms of seven-day access to your GP.”
Dr Richard Vautry, a GP and spokesman for the British Medical Association, told the programme: “GPs are under huge pressure at the moment and we can’t sustain the current service, let alone stretch it to a seven-day service, without significant extra funding and more importantly significant extra staff.”
But Mr Cameron said: “There are 1,000 more GPs operating in Britain than when I became Prime Minister in 2010 and our plans involve many more over the next Parliament to make sure we deliver this pledge.”
The PM said that, as a father of four - including disabled son Ivan, who died in 2009 after years of constant medical care - he was aware “how vital it is to be able to see your GP as well as being able to go to an A&E department”.
And he said that the changes, which also include the return of named GPs responsible for individual patients, would also relieve pressure on the NHS by keeping Britain’s growing number of elderly people away from casualty departments.
“There are many frail elderly people who get into trouble and end up in A&E who really ought to be seeing their family doctor,” he said.
Mr Cameron defended as “fair” the two-year freeze on working-age benefits set out by George Osborne as part of the Tories’ plan to cut the deficit.
Critics accused the Chancellor of putting low-income working families “in the front line” of austerity by targeting 10 million households with a freeze that will affect child benefit, jobseekers’ allowance and tax credits in a bid to shave £3.2 billion off the welfare bill.
But Mr Cameron said it would affect “more like half than two-thirds” of working families, was fairer than tax rises or further spending cuts, would prevent benefits rising faster than wages and was balanced by reforms that had reduced the income tax bill for millions of low earners.
“When we are still spending £100 billion on working-age benefits, it is unrealistic to say that you can cut the budget deficit without making a difficult choice, which is to freeze those benefits for two years,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“We still have to make spending reductions to deal with the deficit and you can’t deal with it simply be cutting or freezing unemployment benefit; you need to look at all of the in-work benefits and I think that is a fair choice.
“The alternative is to either put up people’s taxes - but I think people are paying enough taxes already - or to cut departmental spending, which I don’t think we should be doing more than we have done in the past.
“That’s why, for instance, in this parliament we have protected the NHS and today we have been able to make the announcement about access to your GP.
“It’s fair for this reason: because it will mean that, between 2007 and 2017, benefits and earnings will have gone up by about the same amount.”
Told that official figures showed two-thirds of working families would be affected, he said: “The figure is between half and two-thirds but let’s not quibble about the figures.
“The best way to help working families is to cut their taxes and under this Government you can earn £10,000, next year £10,500, before you pay any income tax at all.”
Pensioner and disability benefits will be excluded from the freeze, as will maternity and paternity pay.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: “David Cameron made an almost identical announcement this time last year but, in the 12 months since, he has made it harder, not easier, to get a GP appointment.
“After the election, David Cameron scrapped Labour’s GP appointment guarantee and cut support for evening and weekend opening. His broken promises on the NHS have caught up with him.
“Labour has a plan for extra funding for the NHS and commitment to recruit 8,000 more GPs.
“Under David Cameron, it has got harder and harder to get a GP appointment. People are left ringing the surgery early in the morning, only to be told nothing is available for days.
“The next Labour government will guarantee a GP appointment within 48 hours or a same-day consultation with a doctor or nurse for those who need it.”
The final Conservative conference before the general election has been overshadowed by the defection of two MPs - Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless - to Eurosceptic party Ukip, as well as a sex scandal which forced the resignation as a minister of Brooks Newmark.
Asked if he feared further defections, Mr Cameron told Good Morning Britain: “The point is there is no need for anyone to defect, because if you want an in/out referendum on Europe, if you want action on immigration, if you want further reform to our welfare system, if you want to keep our economy growing, the only way to get that is to have a Conservative government.
“If you vote for Ukip, you are more than likely to end up with Ed Miliband in 10 Downing Street and Ed Balls at the Treasury, repeating all the mistakes they made in the past and not giving you a choice on Europe.
“So it is a very straight choice at the next election and the feeling at this conference is of a team coming together to serve our country and put forward a very clear long-term economic plan for how we can deliver for everyone in the country in the years ahead.”
Asked why he did not meet Ukip leader Nigel Farage and invite him to join his “camp”, rather than fighting the eurosceptic party, Mr Cameron told Sky News Sunrise: “I think probably for my blood pressure a meeting with Nigel Farage is not the best idea. I can think of some other things to get my blood pressure down.
“The fundamental point is this - the next election is going to be a straight choice. Do you want Labour in power, who haven’t learnt the lessons of the past, or do you want the Conservatives to continue with our plan?”
Responding to Mr Reckless’s claims that his promised renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership would not deliver real reform, Mr Cameron said: “He can say what he likes, but the truth is if you want that in/out referendum on Europe - and I think Mark Reckless does - if you go to Ukip you make it less likely that you will get it, because you will end up with Ed Miliband in Downing Street, Labour in office, and they won’t give you a referendum.”
Asked whether he was more frightened by Labour or Ukip, he replied: “Nothing frightens me apart from the idea that Britain could end up going backwards rather than forwards.
“We do have a double fight on our hands. We do have to convince people - and I don’t think it’s that difficult to - that Labour can’t be trusted with the economy.
“But we also have to convince people who have left the Conservatives and gone towards Ukip that we will give you that referendum, we will take action on immigration, we understand your concerns about this globalised, international world and the pressures it can put on families and the worries you have for the future, but our long-term plan can deliver for your future on the issues you care about, but crucially on the economy, so that your children can enjoy a better standard of living than you have.”
The Prime Minister added: “The key choice at the election is do you want to continue with the long-term economic plan that we’ve put in place, that’s delivered 1.8 million more people in work, 400,000 more businesses, that’s seen people able to earn up to £10,000 before they start paying income tax - do you want to continue with that or do you want to put it all at risk with Ed Miliband in Downing Street, Ed Balls in the Treasury, two people who are partly responsible for the mess we got into in the first place?
“That’s the choice, and that’s why I think you are seeing the Conservative Party coming together this week in Birmingham because the choice is so clear at the next election.”
Mr Cameron said he was “very much hoping” to win the election, but added: “In my job, the boss are the people and they get the vote and in May next year they make their decision. I will put myself forward as someone who I believe is delivering for our economy - 1.8 million more people in work, the fastest growing economy in the West.
“I’m not saying the job is done. It isn’t completed, but if we stick to the path we’ve set out we can deliver a more secure future for Britain, and in the end that’s what really matters.”
Mr Cameron was challenged over why he was making funding for GPs a priority, the Prime Minister said: “I am the Conservative leader who said he could sum up his beliefs in three letters - NHS.
“We’ve had to make some terribly difficult cuts over the last four years and there are, as George Osborne said, still difficult decisions to come.
“But I have protected the NHS from cuts because it is so precious. Labour are actually running the NHS in Wales and they’ve cut the NHS in Wales, which is why waiting times are longer and the NHS is in such trouble in Wales.”