Downing Street slaps down Jeremy Hunt after backing fines for missed NHS appointments 'in principle'

Prime Minister's spokeswoman says the government has 'no intention' of charging patients for missed appointments'

Matt Dathan
Friday 03 July 2015 14:50 BST
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt with the Prime Minister, David Cameron
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt with the Prime Minister, David Cameron

Downing Street has slapped down Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt after he opened up the prospect of the NHS charging patients for missed appointments.

Mr Hunt said he was open to the idea "in principle", hinting that the move could follow his announcement that absent patients will be told how much they cost the NHS by failing to turn up.

He suggested the main obstacle to charging for missed appointments was the fact it would be difficult to implement "in practical terms".

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, said he was open to the idea of charging for missed NHS appointments 'in principle'

However the Prime Minister's spokeswoman was quick to dismiss the idea, telling reporters at Westminster that the government had "no intention to charge people if they miss appointments" and said Mr Hunt was "clear" about government policy on the issue.

"They both are clear that there is no intention to charge," the spokeswoman said. "He [Mr Hunt] talked about whether or not, in principle, he could see this idea.

"But the point that he was making is that when you have pressures on the NHS and challenges facing them then it's important that we get people to take personal responsibility for the way that we use NHS resources.

"The PM is clear that he is committed to free healthcare for everyone, wherever you are and whenever you need it and has no intention of charging for missed GP appointments."

It is the second health minister Number 10 has overruled since the election after Life sciences minister George Freeman became the first member of the government to hint that a sugar tax could be in the offing. He said food companies had a responsibility to cut down on the amount of sugar in their products and suggested that failure to do so could lead to penalties.

George Freeman raised the prospect of introducing a 'sugar tax'

A Number 10 spokesman was again quick to dismiss the idea, insisting the government had no plans to introduce a tax. "I don't believe that the right approach here is to put sugar taxes on hard-working people to increase the weight and cost of their shopping baskets," he added.

Mr Hunt made his remarks on BBC One's Question Time as he discussed his announcement that the NHS will start telling absent patients how much they cost the NHS every time they fail to turn up to an appointment.

He said it was the "first step" in tackling the significant cost of missed appointments to the NHS, which he said stood at more than £900 million a year.

The NHS will also start telling patients the price of every drug prescribed to them that costs the NHS more than £20 as part of the drive to reduce waste. It is also designed to help patients complete courses of medicine.

The cost of prescriptions over £20 will be printed on the package to make patients more aware of the actual price

Asked whether he backed the idea of charging patients for missed NHS appointments on BBC One's Question Time, Mr Hunt said: "We are very stretched for resources, doctors and nurses work incredibly hard and we're going to have a million more over-70s by the end of this Parliament.

"If we're going to square the circle and have a fantastic NHS, despite all those pressures, we have to take personal responsibility about how we use NHS resources.

"I don't have a problem in principle with charging people for missed appointments, in practical terms it is difficult to do.

"But I have taken a step towards that this week by announcing that when people do miss an appointment they will be told how much that will cost the NHS as a first step."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The Health Secretary set out this week that missed NHS appointments cost the service nearly £1 billion – money which could otherwise be funding thousands more doctors and nurses.

“The NHS will remain free at the point of use under this Government, but we want people to be told the cost of missing appointments to encourage everyone to play their part in keeping the NHS sustainable.”

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