Politics: GPs to be given power to hire new recruits

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Dr Dangerfield's fictional TV practice could have been helped to find a replacement for its departing star under the Government's latest initiative. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says ministers want to allow family practices to hire GPs on salaries of around pounds 45,000 a year.

Dr Paige, the new recruit played by Nigel Havers in the new BBC TV series of Dangerfield, could have been hired on a salary by his colleagues under a new initiative by the Government.

After a series of pilots in London, Alan Milburn, the health minister, will announce this week that family doctors across Britain will be given power to hire other GPs on salaries. It could allow more doctors, who have dropped out to have babies or taken a career break for other reasons, to return to general practice.

In real life, as in the television world of the fictional practice, many general practices are finding it hard to fill vacancies, and patients are suffering.

The fictional practice in the Dangerfield series would suffer less than most - it has a picturesque setting in a semi-rural area, and a Range Rover appears to go with the job. The main shortages of GPs are being experienced in hard-pressed urban practices, where young doctors are reluctant to make a long-term commitment.

But country practices are also finding it difficult to fill vacancies. One problem is the commitment required for GPs to take on a job in a practice, even as a partner. Many young doctors want to commit one day a week to research or other specialist work, in addition to their general practice duties.

Most GPs are employed as independent contractors through their local health authorities and derive their incomes of pounds 45,000 a year from a complex range of fees and allowances agreed each year by the Government, after recommendations by their own pay review body.

The salaries will be negotiated locally, but the aim is to offer around pounds 45,000 a year, similar to those earned by other practice GPs. The announcement is being made after agreement with the profession. The salaried GPs will be responsible to the practice that hires them.

Meanwhile, The British Medical Association yesterday said it was deeply concerned at weekend reports that ministers are planning to put cash limits on the drugs budgets of family GPs to curb the cost of prescribing on the NHS.

"You cannot have a situation where a GP's drugs budget runs out in February. You have to have a safety valve," said a BMA source.

Limiting prescribing budgets for each practice could lead to patients being denied drugs on the NHS, unless a let-out clause was allowed. The move is part the plan, to be announced in the White Paper on the NHS at the end of the month, to abolish the barriers between family doctor surgeries and hospitals, which have cash-limited budgets.