Family doctors who object to opening their surgeries at weekends and for longer in the evenings are "out of touch with patients", the Health Secretary believes.
In an escalating row with GPs, Alan Johnson has sent a briefing note to all Labour MPs, urging them to condemn the British Medical Association – which represents family doctors – for presenting what he claims is a distorted picture of plans to reform patient care.
Gordon Brown wants surgeries to open longer and deliver a far more "personalised" service. He has threatened to impose the changes by force if GPs refuse to accept them.
But doctors say Downing Street has vetoed a deal reached with the health ministry in December on new terms for their contracts. "[The talks] were going well but [our negotiators] went up to No 10 or the Treasury and were told they could not honour their side of the bargain," said a BMA source.
The BMA will ballot its members next month over how to oppose the plans and is threatening to mobilise public support through a campaign in surgeries. However, in a pre-emptive strike, Mr Johnson told Labour MPs the "BMA is out of touch with the concerns of patients on this issue". He quoted one BMA leader comparing family doctors to accountants who refused to work weekends. GPs have also been criticised for resisting longer opening while their salaries have risen by 55 per cent since 2002, to an average of £110,000 a year.
Mr Johnson wrote: "The proposals put to the BMA before Christmas were based on practices opening for an extra period, based on the number of patients registered with that practice. This would typically see an average practice opening for three hours each week, either on a Saturday morning or on one or more weekday evenings."
The longer hours would be funded by using the £150m currently set aside for incentive schemes to improve patient access. Under the plans, evening or weekend appointments would be offered in addition to daytime services. "There would be no adverse impact, as the BMA has claimed, on the majority of people who [use] services during the daytime," Mr Johnson said.
He stressed that, in return for these changes, the Government would raise funding for surgeries by 1.5 per cent – about £12,000 for an average-sized practice. "We consider a 1.5 per cent increase a fair offer that provides greater convenience for patients and offers a good deal for GPs," Mr Johnson told his MPs.
He urged them to spread "key messages" to their constituents, including the findings of a survey which showed that nearly 6.5 million patients were dissatisfied with the opening hours of their GP's surgery.
A report by the consumer group Which? said the top health priorities for the public were making it easier to make a doctor's appointment and being able to book weekend or evening visits to their surgery.