Patients would be guaranteed a GP appointment within 48 hours under a Labour Government and those who need it would get one within 24 hours.
Announcing Labour’s plans for the National Health Service tonight, Ed Miliband promised that an extra £100 million a year would be ploughed into GP services, allowing an extra three million appointments a year, relieving pressure on accident and emergency units and preventing unnecessary hospital admissions.
In a hard-hitting speech in Manchester, the Labour leader attacked the current waiting times for GP appointments as “a scandal”. He also accused David Cameron of breaking his “bond of trust” with the British people to defend the NHS, saying: “He has proved the oldest truth in British politics: you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS.”
The move will be seen as an attempt by Labour to push health up the political agenda. Although voters trust Labour more than the Conservatives on the NHS, it has slipped down their list of most important issues facing the country.
But Labour suffered a setback last night when an opinion poll showed the Tories ahead for the first time in more than two years. The survey conducted for Lord Ashcroft, the Tories’ former deputy chairman, put the Conservatives on 34 per cent, Labour on 32 per cent, Ukip on 15 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 9 per cent.
With polls suggesting that 25 per cent of people cannot get a GP appointment within a week, Mr Miliband will make improving primary care a key pledge at next year’s general election. In 2010, the Coalition scrapped the previous Labour Government’s 48-hour appointment target. Labour said the number of patients seen within that timescale has since halved to 40 per cent.
Under the new policy, people would also be able to book a GP appointment more than 48 hours ahead with the doctor of their choice. Patients would be able to consult a doctor or nurse by telephone on the same day. Those who needed to be seen quickly would get a slot on that day, while others would be seen within 48 hours.
Although the NHS faces a deep financial crisis after the next election, Mr Miliband admitted that an incoming Labour Government would not be able to pump billions into health in the way the Blair and Brown administrations did. “Money will be tight,” he said. “The next Labour government won’t be able to match that scale of increase. We will have to do things in a new way to make our health service better, to save money where we can – and make sure that every single penny is well spent.”
Labour would fund the £500 million boost for GP services over five years by cutting back the competition for health contracts introduced by the Coalition. For example, Labour claims it could save £78 million in unnecessary administration and legal fees because NHS services are now threatened by EU competition law. The regulator Monitor would no longer enforce competition as part of a drive to cut the £3 million a month being spent by health bodies on outside consultants.
Mr Miliband argued that Labour’s plan to “improve, protect and nurture” the NHS would make it preventive rather than reactive. The party would integrate physical and mental health services and social care and invest in care in people’s own homes. “If a simple grab rail is placed in someone’s hall at home, that can stop a fall that could lead that person breaking a bone, keeping them out of hospital, saving them the pain and the suffering and saving the NHS thousands of pounds,” he said.
The Labour leader pointed to studies showing that a five per cent increase in patients seeing their preferred GP could reduce emergency admissions by 159,000 a year and saving the health service £375 million.
The Conservatives claimed that Labour’s sums did not add up. A Tory health spokesman said: “This is an unfunded pie-in-the-sky policy that Labour can't pay for and doctors can't deliver. More unfunded spending would mean more borrowing and more taxes to pay for it. It’s the same old Labour. The last Labour Government vandalised the relationship between GPs and their patients by introducing tickbox targets and scrapping family doctors, something we are now putting right. Far from improving access, another top-down target will leave GPs less time with their patients and put more pressure on general practice. The real solution is less micromanagement and more GPs, something we’ve already committed to.”
Critics claimed that, when Labour was in office, the 48-hour target meant that patients could not get the appointments they wanted. Many surgeries did not allow patients to book advance appointments. The 2010 GP patient survey said a quarter of patients who wanted to book a slot more than two days in advance were unable to do so.
Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has unveiled a £50 million plan to boost access to family doctors. 20 pilot schemes covering 1,150 practices will include experiments with surgeries opening from 8am-8pm seven days a week and allowing patients to book appointments by email.