Like prize fighters, the Health Secretary and the leader of Britain’s GPs squared up to each other yesterday – albeit on opposite sides of town.
At the King’s Fund, Jeremy Hunt painted a vivid picture of dysfunctional GP practices in which doctors do not know their patients’ names, appointments are difficult to come by, and out-of-hours services are patchy at best.
Meanwhile, at the British Medical Association annual GPs’ conference, Laurence Buckman fumed at the Health Secretary’s “bashing doctors” and “spouting rubbish” about the causes of the crisis in A&E departments.
The spectacle of such heavyweights facing off so aggressively is not only an unedifying one. It is also no route to a solution for the knotty problems facing our health services.
There is plenty of history between the Government and the medics. The BMA is one of the most powerful lobbies in the land, with the result that health secretaries have, historically, worked hard to keep doctors on-side. Hence, for example, the Labour government’s over-generous contract with GPs in 2004.
Mr Hunt has no such sensitivities. And, given the BMA’s politically disastrous strike over pensions last year – which was roundly opposed by the general public – he may sense that now is the time to redress the balance.
While it is appealing to couch the problems with A&E solely in terms of family doctors’ shrunken responsibilities, and it is true that the BMA has more clout than perhaps it should, neither is the whole story here. These are highly complex issues, touching everything from the ageing population to the rising proportion of female GPs. Neither simple arguments, nor simple solutions will do.
What is certain is that a stand-off helps no one. It is time for Mr Hunt to soften up and for the BMA to calm down. The problems facing emergency health services – both GPs’ out-of-hours and hospital A&E – will only be solved by a negotiated settlement. It will not be easy but our lives may – literally – depend on it.