Millions still lack out-of-hours access to GPs

The Government has been accused of breaking its promise on improving access to doctors appointments, as new figures published today show the NHS is falling short of an ambitious target.

Just 40 per cent of patients enjoy seven-day access to GP appointments outside of normal working hours and on weekends.

From October 1 it will be mandatory for all Clinical Commissioning Groups to put in place arrangements for extended access to general practice, under a target set by NHS England and NHS Improvement.

The deadline was originally set for the end of March 2019, following a government pledge in 2014 to introduce extended opening hours for every patient.

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But an analysis of bi-annual surveys completed by GP practices found just 41 per cent of practices in England currently offer patients access to pre-bookable appointments on each day of the week for at least 1.5 hours, in the early morning before 8am, in the evening after 6.30pm or in both the morning and evening.

Only 40 per cent of patients enjoy seven-day access to appointments outside of normal working hours and on weekends, while one in every ten patients - some 5.4m people - do not have any access to extended hours appointments at all.

The findings show that access to extended hours appointments is worse, on average, in Yorkshire. Across the region as a whole, just 35 per cent of patients - 1.7m people - have full access to extended hours appointments, and it is offered by only 36 per cent of GP practices. Some 72 practices in Yorkshire fail to offer patients any access to pre-bookable appointments outside of core contractual hours, accounting for nearly 488,000 patients, and 9.5 per cent of all patients in Yorkshire.

NHS England disputed the findings, insisting it was on track to offer access to extended hours appointments for all. It claimed that its own monthly data shows 55 per cent of GP practices in England offer full provision for appointments outside of normal working hours and weekends.

A spokesperson said: “The NHS is investing at least £258m this year to offer improved access to general practice, including evening and weekend appointments. This is ahead of schedule with appointments available to more than half the country now, and they will be available across the whole country by October this year.”

Yet the chairman of the Royal College of GPs, Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, said GP practices get a smaller share of the NHS budget than a decade ago and that the number of GPs is decreasing.

“With the significant workforce constraints we are currently working under, extra services might only be offered by compromising existing services, either reducing the quantity or quality of core hours offerings, or both,” she said.

The Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jonathan Ashworth, accused the Government of failure, saying: “This is yet more evidence that the Tories have broken their promises on access to GPs seven days a week... We need a serious long term investment plan for primary care.”

Of Yorkshire’s 19 Clinical Commissioning Group, the East Riding of Yorkshire CCG has the highest proportion of registered NHS patients without any access to pre-bookable appointments outside of core hours.

According to survey data, 14 of East Yorkshire’s 31 practices do not offer any such access, affecting 129,252 patients - 43 per cent of local patients.

The only CCG areas in Yorkshire where no GP practices offer pre-bookable, out-of-hours appointments for at least 1.5 hours all week round are Airedale, Wharfedale and Craven, Calderdale, East Riding, Leeds North, Scarborough and Ryedale, and Vale of York.