GPs agree to longer hours after government 'threats'

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Family doctors' surgeries are to open for an extra three hours a week after GPs caved in to government demands that they provide evening and weekend services. A poll of 27,000 GPs voted in favour of longer opening hours after pressure from the BMA, the professional body that negotiates on behalf of doctors.

Surgeries will now have the option of opening either until 8pm on two nights a week or between 9.30am and 11.30am on Saturdays.

But the doctors' concession came reluctantly, with 98 per cent of those polled saying the Government's strong-arm tactics had been "unacceptable".

The BMA has been locked in a long-running battle with ministers over longer opening hours ever since it emerged that GPs had seen their incomes rise by 58 per cent to £110,000 a year while being allowed more time off at weekends and evenings. The revelation came as an embarrassment to the Government and prompted Gordon Brown to make longer opening hours for GPs a priority.

Yesterday Mr Brown welcomed the move to incorporate longer hours into the GPs' contract. "These improvements are critical if the NHS is to deliver more personal services and better focus on preventing ill health at an early stage. Our task is now to work with GPs to implement these reforms," he said.

Any relief felt by the Government was tempered, however, by a stark warning from the BMA to Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, that there had been "an overwhelming loss of faith" among the profession in government policy and its ability to improve the health service.

Outside the medical profession the move towards longer opening hours was hailed as a positive sign, with business leaders backing the demands for more productivity. Neil Bentley, CBI director of public services, said: "In recent years GPs have received massive extra funding but this has delivered limited benefit to patients. It is time this changed.

"The Government is right to push for more flexible opening hours for patients, but these initial attempts to extend access must not be seen as an end in themselves. Wider and deeper reforms will be needed if we are to get GP services that are truly patient friendly."

The Government turned the screw on the BMA, which had initially shown extreme hostility towards the negotiations, by threatening to give more contracts to private companies. However, the CBI said ministers should not now go soft on the proposal for privatised GP surgeries.

"It is plain wrong to suggest that bringing in private providers will be bad for the NHS. In other areas of the health service they have delivered high-quality care and led to very satisfied patients. Good family doctors should have no reason to feel threatened by such proposals," said Dr Bentley.

Mark Simmonds, a Tory health spokesman, said: "The Government's botched GP contract has cost the taxpayer £1.76bn, and still it remains unresolved. This tug of war between the Government and GPs is far from over, and it's patients who are paying the price."

The move came as the Government announced a 25p increase in prescription charges, raising the cost of a prescription to £7.10 from 1 April. However, the increase also raised Opposition suspicions that ministers may have shelved plans for a radical reform of the prescription system until after the May local elections. Dawn Primarolo, the public health minister, announced the review of anomalies which allow free prescriptions to the unemployed and diabetes sufferers but require asthma suffers to pay.