Labour and Conservative election promises to make it easier to get a GP appointment will be “challenging” to achieve within the next five years, experts have said.
Both the leading parties have made bold pledges on GP access, amid growing public concerns about long waits for appointments.
David Cameron has promised everyone in England will be able to see their GP between 8am and 8pm, seven days a week, by 2020. Labour meanwhile, have pledged to reintroduce a guarantee to see your GP within 48 hours of making an appointment.
Both pledges would require many more GPs. The Conservatives have said they will recruit 5,000 more and Labour 8,000.
However, experts writing in the BMJ today say that such increases were “unlikely to be achieved within a parliamentary term”.
According to latest figures, there were 40,584 GPs in England in 2014. However, the workforce is ageing and increasing pressures have led many to consider early retirement. The profession has also had difficulty recruiting new medical graduates in recent years, with more than one in every 10 training places left unfilled last year.
A major recruitment drive is now underway but the BMJ experts, from Imperial College London and the Commonwealth Fund think-tank, said the numbers promised by the political parties were optimistic.
Labour’s 48-hour pledge “may prove unrealistic”, while Conservative ambitions to bring down the number of people attending A&E by extending GP opening times are based on slim evidence, the researchers write.
The Conservative plan for longer opening hours is based on pilots that they say have led to 7.5 million getting better access – a number that is set to rise to 18 million by next March after the pilots were extended last month.
While the Department of Health has said early evidence suggests the pilots have relieved pressures on A&E, the BMJ authors said existing evidence was “inadequate to inform national policy”.
The Conservatives have committed £1.2bn in extra funding for GPs over the next four years.
Labour meanwhile promise to increase the NHS budget by £2.5bn per year above the Government’s plans – including funds for 8,000 more GPs in the next Parliament.
However, the BMJ authors said that the biggest five-year increase in the GP workforce over the past 20 years was 5,414, between 2004 and 2009. Labour had also failed to deliver their 48-hour pledge when last in Government, the authors said.
“The aims and rationale of the policies outlined by the Conservative and Labour parties do not seem explicit,” they write. “One aim is undoubtedly to win election votes. But the aims for the NHS and for patients are less clear.”
Both parties defended their policies. The Liberal Democrats have also pledged to extend evening and weekend opening hours, but the BMJ authors said their proposals were “more reserved”.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies