Eighteen million people will be offered more evening and weekend video, email and telephone consultations by March next year, it was revealed last night as part of David Cameron’s election pledge for a full seven-day NHS by 2020.
While extra funding for evening and weekend appointments had been already announced by the PM last year, the details of how many would benefit, and how the ambitious promise would be fulfilled, were published for the first time by the Department of Health yesterday.
Both the Tories and Labour accused each other of offering voters unachievable refinements of the NHS, after Ed Miliband launched his party’s campaign on Friday with a policy to cap profits of private providers in the NHS at 5 per cent. The Patients Association warned the Labour plan would put hospitals in danger because private companies provide an essential service to plug gaps in NHS resources.
In turn, the Conservative plan for round-the-clock appointments with GPs and hospitals was criticised because the problem of higher death rates at weekends has been acknowledged by government for years.
The £550m funding for the extra services will come from an increase to £100m in the PM’s Challenge Fund for more appointments, plus a £250m infrastructure fund for new buildings and a £200m transformation fund for 29 pilots to integrate hospital, GP and care-home services. Yet this is a fraction of the £30bn that experts say is needed to meet rising demand during the next Parliament.
There is also the question of staff: more GPs, nurses and consultants will be needed to deliver Mr Cameron’s pledge, and the NHS is battling a recruitment crisis, trying to lure medical graduates back from Australia and New Zealand to meet demand, as The Independent on Sunday revealed last month.
Nuffield Trust chief executive Nigel Edwards yesterday said the PM’s policy was right, but warned: “We should be under no illusions: this will mean big changes to the way services are run across the country. Even if there were significant extra funding available for the NHS, getting the critical mass of specialist staff needed to make seven-day working a reality would be likely to mean closures or mergers of local services, such as emergency surgery or maternity units.”
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