Patients could still be fined for missing GP appointments under NHS plans being considered by the government, a health minister has admitted.
Maria Caulfield said the idea could “potentially” feature in the next Tory general election manifesto, adding that ministers are “not ruling it out”.
Rishi Sunak pledged during last summer’s Conservative leadership election to introduce £10 fines for patients who miss GP and hospital appointments.
He has since ditched the controversial plan, but asked about the idea on Wednesday morning, Ms Caulfield said the idea is “not ruled out for the future”.
She told ITV: “We haven’t got a plan to introduce charges at the moment but what we are doing is trying to remind people as easily as possible, whether that is on the NHS app, most GPs now have a tech system to remind people about their appointments, the same with hospitals as well and moving away from those letters.
“They are still important for a lot of people but just trying to make it as easy as possible for people to know when they have got an appointment and to remind them to return. It is not ruled out for the future but there is no immediate plans to introduce that right now.”
Asked if the policy could potentially be in the next Tory manifesto, Ms Caulfield said: “Potentially, yes.”
Asked if the government planned to bring in fines for missed GP appointments, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “No – no plans to do that.”
Speaking about fines for missed appointments during his leadership campaign, Mr Sunak said: “If they’re not being used, then that’s a waste. So if we can change that, then we basically get more out of the money that we’re putting in today.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said charging patients who miss appointments “would not solve the fundamental problem” facing the NHS.
Mr Streeting told ITV: “I don’t think it would solve the fundamental problem or meet the scale of the challenge. And I fear it would cost more than it would raise in admin fees and bureaucracy.
“Doctors tell me this is not a power they want and not a levy they want to charge, and I do not think it would fix the fundamentals.”
It comes as No 10 said Mr Sunak was still committed to cutting the overall waiting lists in the NHS after his health minister Ms Caulfield admitted the 7.4 million list – which rose from 7.2 million – “will probably go up higher”.
The Tory minister told Sky News: “To patients, what matters is how long they’re waiting. They’re not really worried about who else is on the waiting list.”
Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “We are rightly focusing on those waiting the longest – so those waiting two years, 18 months and now one year, and we are making progress on all of those.
“At the same time, as I think we acknowledged coming out of Covid, we knew that waiting lists would increase before they came down. But we are committed to reducing waiting lists overall, but rightly focusing on those who have been waiting the longest.”
It came after Sir Tony Blair warned the NHS would “continue down a path of decline” without greater involvement of the private sector.
The former prime minister called for patients to be able to pay to speed up access to healthcare. And he said NHS funds should be able to contribute toward private treatment that is not normally paid for by the government.
The ex-Labour leader used the 75th anniversary of the NHS to warn the service must either “change or decline”.
Embracing the private sector would open the NHS to providers where the “incentives of funding and accountability are designed to encourage innovation”, he added.
Sir Tony said the NHS App has opened the door to partnership with the private sector in “ways that were not possible before”, creating “opportunities for greater choice and competition”.
A first time offender would be given the benefit of the doubt but missed appointments after would ring up charges of £10 each time, he suggested.
But health leaders criticised the idea, and Downing Street last October said it “acknowledged that now is not the right time to take this policy forward.”
NHS England figures show that of the 122 million appointments booked in 2021-22 around 6.4 per cent, or around 7.8million, were missed.
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