Cameron and Miliband should have learnt from Clegg’s tuition fee vow: don’t make promises you can’t keep. They’ve both committed that fatal error over the last few weeks, promising to save primary healthcare with thousands more GPs.
But they didn’t fool anyone: they have no idea how they’re going to achieve their aims, and with GP shortages already threatening to close 600 practices, their negligence will be bad for our health.
Jeremy Hunt underlined that negligence in a speech to the Royal College of General Practitioners last week: he announced that he would commission an independent review of how many additional GPs are required across the country.
You would have thought that’s the kind of thing he should have done before he made sweeping policy announcements, but no: lofty promises come first, and the detail of how it will work comes much later. His party’s promise to deliver 5,000 more GPs was based on guesswork: they have no idea how many more doctors we need, where the bulk of the shortages are, or how the government can encourage more medical students into the sector.
To make it worse, Tory plans to extend GP opening hours and keep practices open on weekends won’t help the recruitment crisis. Nearly 40 per cent of GP training places were unfilled in some areas of the UK this year, and applications for postgraduate GP speciality training have dropped 15 per cent.
It used to be that the regular hours and comfortable lifestyle that came with being a GP had doctors fighting over places. But now GPs have more commissioning responsibility, and have seen their workloads gradually increase. Doctors that were once so eager to enter practices are wavering on the threshold.
Telling them they may have to work longer hours, giving up their Sunday evenings to be stuck in the surgery, turn them away for good. Practices are already at “breaking point” according to the GP representative body the BMA, and without a boost in GP numbers – which won’t materialise – they may be stretched beyond repair.
Ed Miliband’s plan to deliver 8,000 more GPs is equally ludicrous. Just 2,564 doctors took GP training jobs this year, 200 less than last year: the BMA branded the figures the “worst ever”.
However, Labour has turned it around before; the number of GPs rose by more than 8,000 between 1996 and 2010. But we’re facing a harsher climb than ever: in 600 British practices, more than 90 per cent of the GPs are 60 or older, according to the RCGP.
The average retirement age is 59. Mr Miliband doesn’t have 14 years to fix our health service – it’s already “creaking”, as he said in his conference speech, and if the next government doesn’t take urgent action it will collapse. He can’t deliver, and if we let him get away with it until he’s in number 10, the problems are only going to get worse.
Even if he and Cameron can find a few thousand GPs down the back of a Whitehall sofa, it’s not clear that throwing bodies at the problem is the way to go. It might mean more conditions are picked up and treated before they reach hospital, thus reducing system-wide pressure. But it may not change anything: with GP appointments more readily available, the public might start visiting their doctor more frequently for minor ailments, which would take us back to square one. The announcements – designed to show that politicians really care about our health service – are an insult to us all.
Instead of the reasoned, balanced plan the NHS needed, we got politicians puffing up their chests, seeing who could pluck the highest number out of the air. And while the inflated figures made good headlines, they shouldn’t satisfy anyone who cares about our health service.Reuse content