GPs sound alarm over supermarket surgeries

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Thousands of family doctors are being urged today to campaign against the Government's plans to allow private companies such as supermarkets to employ GPs in their own surgeries in shopping malls.

The British Medical Association, which represents Britain's 36,000 doctors, in effect is ready to declare war on the Government in the general election. It are preparing to canvass every candidate of the three main parties about their views on the Government's plan, and it will be warning that if the plan goes ahead, this will be the first step towards the privatisation of primary care services.

The doctors fear that the NHS Primary Care Bill will allow private firms to use GPs to promote their own products, and herald the introduction of "disease packages", in which companies are permitted to prescribe particular treatments.

Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the BMA's GPs' committee, and Sandy Macara, the chairman of the BMA, are due to meet Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, on Wednesday to appeal to the Government to withdraw the clause from the Bill allowing private firms to hire GPs.

"This is the commercialisation of the family doctor service and it will undoubtedly make privatisation of the service that much easier," said Dr Bogle. "This proposal is a significant step towards deregulation of general practice. We cannot accept that.

"Any intrusion of this sort by the private sector threatens to distort the quality of care received by patients because of the inevitable conflict of interest between the aims of the NHS and the commercial sector's allegiance to shareholders. GPs must remain the patients' advocate and any move that threatens to curtail GPs' freedom in the surgery is bad for patients.

"I cannot believe that the public and patients really want their GPs to be employed by the commercial sector."

The BMA is stepping up its campaign after emerging empty handed from a meeting with Department of Health officials last week.

However, sources close to Mr Dorrell last night ruled out a retreat by the government. The Health Secretary believes that the measure allowing private firms to employ GPs is of crucial importance to the Bill.

"The whole political thrust of what we are doing is deregulatory. It's not a political totem, but these proposals have been worked up after consultation, and there are safeguards written into the Bill," said a ministerial source.

Companies which have expressed an interest in running surgeries with their own GPs include Unichem, the chemist chain, and Asda, run by Archie Norman, who is now a Tory candidate. The Bill would allow them to bid for the right to open surgeries in pilot schemes for the expansion of primary care, but they would need the approval of the local health authority before getting the go-ahead from the Secretary of State. Patients could not be charged for their services, which would be provided free on the NHS.

The claims by the BMA that the Bill could lead to the privatisation of the NHS will be fiercely denied by ministers. "They have said this at previous general elections. All we can say is that we are not going to do that, our record shows we haven't, and the White Paper on the NHS contained the strongest commitment to the ethos of the NHS that any minister has ever made," said the ministerial source.

The Bill is due for its second reading in the Commons on 11 February.