A fresh row erupted last night over overcrowded hospital accident and emergency departments. Labour poured scorn on claims by Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, that the controversial 2004 GP contract was the root cause of the crisis.
Labour highlighted official figures showing that the number of people using A&E services has increased three times more since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 than it did in the period from 2004 to 2010 under Labour. Of the 986,000 more visitors using A&E since 2004, 64 per cent are said to have come since 2010, or an average of 211,000 a year – compared with increases of 70,000 a year from 2004 to 2010.
On Friday, as Mr Hunt gave details of a new contract with GPs which is set to take effect from next April, he said that the 2004 contract had "put huge pressure on our A&E departments", and that it "broke the personal link between GP and patient … [and] took away their responsibility for out-of-hours care".
Citing research published early last week by Monitor, the health services regulator in England, Andrew Gwynne, a Labour health spokesman, pointed out that 53 of the 238 medical walk-in centres across the country have closed since the last general election. There have been 2.9 million extra visitors to the centres since 2004, an increase of 494,450 per year between 2004 and 2010 and 197,654 a year since then.
Mr Gwynne said: "Cameron has created this crisis by systematically dismantling alternatives to A&E. A quarter of walk-in centres have been closed. NHS Direct has been scrapped and funding for elderly care has been slashed."