MPs use NHS to ‘score points at Dispatch Box’, say doctors

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Political parties design health policy to “score points over the Dispatch Box” rather than protect and improve the NHS, doctors have said, after a poll found two-thirds of people want it taken out of the hands of politicians.

Three-quarters of the public also believe that key health policies are shaped primarily to win votes, a survey commissioned by the British Medical Association (BMA) found.

Recent policy pledges from the main political parties have left many in the medical profession frustrated by an apparent appeal to populism, without any significant spending commitment to deliver ambitious plans – particularly in the politically sensitive area of GP services.

The Coalition Government want to extend GP opening hours, with weekend surgeries and 8am to 8pm working, while Labour has pledged to reinstate its 48-hour guarantee for GP appointments. 

Both policies are aimed at combatting widespread discontent with GP access, but doctors have said that neither has been matched with funding commitments sufficient to train enough GPs and improve staffing and infrastructure.

The BMA has also challenged the government to have an “honest debate” over the feasibility of seven-day working across the NHS. Doctors are increasingly willing to improve staffing and services at the weekend, but are frustrated that most already work weekends on a regular basis, and concerned that,  again, no major spending allocation has been made to fund improved services.

BMA members are meeting in Harrogate this week for their final Annual Representative Meeting before the General Election. Their poll appears to suggest that the public are broadly supportive of doctors' claims to be best-placed to plan the improvement of the NHS.

Although under the Coalition's health reforms, doctor were given responsibility over local health budgets, and the day-to-day running of the NHS in England was ostensibly delegated to NHS managers, many senior health service figures have said the level of political “meddling” under the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is as high as ever.

Dr Mark Porter, chair of the BMA council, said that doctors wanted to see “politics taken out of the NHS once and for all.”

“A year out from the next election, we’re already seeing politicians lining up politically motivated, not clinically driven changes to GP services,” he said. “Demands to offer appointments within 48 hours, or to increase access to seven days a week might look good on a leaflet but they don’t address the challenges that have left GPs struggling to deliver the care, time and appointments their patients need.”