Dorrell takes sting out of GPs' complaints

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The Independent Online
Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, will today seek to neutralise family doctors as a weapon for the Labour Party in the election, with a package of 70 initiatives to improve morale among GPs. Mr Dorrell will publish a White Paper in effect meeting a shopping list of demands for which GPs have campaigned for years.

Although the detailed initiatives will be seen as small in themselves, the White Paper is aimed at tackling low morale and stop the GPs being recruiting sergeants for Tony Blair in the election.

Family doctors are regarded as important opinion-formers in their communities, and ministers are clearly determined to keep them happy until the election is over.

Labour may cry "foul" over the White Paper which includes pilot schemes for GP joint commissioning - the system which Labour believes ought to replace GP fundholding, and which has led to clashes between Mr Dorrell and Chris Smith, his Labour counterpart.

The White Paper, called Primary Care: Delivering the Future, offers GPs more incentives to rejoin practices after career breaks to start a family, more retraining, a doubling to pounds 50m of the money for research and development, and inclusion in the NHS pension scheme for practice teams.

GP fundholders are to be given the right to use savings on budgets for health care to invest in new premises or land for buildings. They will be helped with loans or grants to buy themselves out of leases on poor premises.

The White Paper will herald a fresh drive to get private finance into capital projects for family doctor services on the NHS. Ministers deny it will mean privatising the health service. Private money may be used for building new cottage hospitals, where patients could undergo operations closer to their homes.

The plans include extending the nurse prescribing pilot scheme from April 1997 in 500 GPs' practices where a total of 1,500 nurses will be given prescribing power. The aim would be to throw it open to the rest of the country by April 1998.

The White Paper fills the gaps left by the NHS Primary Care Bill, which enables a wide range of pilot schemes for the expansion of family doctor services from April 1998.

The Bill faces Labour challenges in the committee stage today in the House of Lords. Baroness Jay, the Labour shadow health minister in the Lords, has tabled an amendment to stop private companies proposing pilot schemes, which could forbid Unichem, the chain of pharmacists, from going ahead with plans to run surgeries incorporating their own chemists' shops.

Labour regards the health service as its strongest battleground for the general election, but Mr Dorrell has intensified the pressure by issuing a string of policy initiatives, focusing on the Government's strategy for expanding family doctor services to include more services. The BMA fears it could drain money away from hospitals.

Labour may see the White Paper as an attempt to divert attention from a threatened winter crisis in NHS hospitals, where GPs have been forced in some areas to delay operations until next April when some of the extra pounds 1.6bn for the NHS becomes available.