The new winter access fund will pay for locum, or self-employed GPs, to work more shifts in GP surgeries. It will also be used to fund appointments with non-medical staff such as physiotherapists and podiatrists and advanced nurse practitioners.
The aim to increase the number of same-day appointments for patients to head off growing anger over the difficulties patients are experiencing in getting a GP slot.
According to NHS data, 58 per cent of GP appointments are carried out face to face with most also on the same day. During the pandemic and as a result of encouragement by NHS England and Department of Health and Social Care, many GPs adopted digital and telephone appointments.
In July last year, then health secretary Matt Hancock said that all initial GP appointments “should be teleconsultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to”.
And the NHS’s Long Term Plan, published in 2019, put forward proposals for all patients to be given a “digital-first” option for accessing GP care, should they want it.
NHS England said its new plan to support GPs will also aim to tackle rising abuse of doctors and staff. The Independent has previously highlighted the pressures on GPs and the increasing demand as fewer GPs serve an increasing population with pent up demand for healthcare.
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS, said: “Improving access to high quality general practice is essential for our patients and for the rest of the NHS too.
“It is a personal priority and today NHS England is taking both urgent and longer-term action to back GPs and their teams with additional investment and support.”
A new YouGov poll suggests two-thirds of people would prefer a face-to-face appointment with 25 per cent saying they wouldn’t mind what format is used.
Dr Julia Grace Patterson, from the EveryDoctor campaign group, said: “It’s a bit of a shock for GPs to have been told vehemently by the health secretary last year that all appointments should be via telephone, and now we are told the absolute opposite and, in fact, blamed for the amount of telephone consultations that have been happening.”
She said “inflammatory” rhetoric about access to GP services was leading to “abuse” of staff and pointed to the 2021 GP patient survey which showed 83 per cent of patients in England said their experience was “good”.
The survey of around 850,000 patients across England also found 82 per cent said they were “satisfied” with the appointment they were offered – up from 73 per cent the year before.
Secretary of state for health and social care Sajid Javid said: “I am determined to ensure patients can see their GP in the way they want, no matter where they live.
“Our new plan provides general practice teams with investment and targeted support. This will tackle underperformance, taking pressure off staff so they can spend more time with patients and increase the number of face-to-face appointments.
“Alongside this we are setting out more measures to tackle abuse and harassment so staff at GP surgeries who work so tirelessly to care for patients can do so without having to fear for their safety.”
The NHS England plan, makes clear every GP practice must seek patients’ input and respect their preferences for face to face appointments unless there are good clinical reasons not to.
Local areas will be free to decide how the money is spent although NHS England suggested it could be used to establish walk-in hubs in the community.
GP practices who don’t provide enough face to face appointments will not be given access to the funding.
NHS England said cash will also be used to upgrade telephone systems to improve access and to avoid long waits on the phone for patients trying to speak to staff.
Other changes include reducing admin burdens on GPs to fill out fit notes and DVLA checks.
GP surgeries will also be given new infection advice on social distancing so their waiting rooms can accommodate more patients.
The NHS has said GP appointment data will be published by practice from spring next year to increase transparency and patients will be able to rate their practice by text message.
Ministers have promised to deliver 50 million more GP appointments by 2024 along with 6,000 more GPs and 6,000 more practice nurses and other staff.
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “The workforce pressures facing general practice are long-standing. We need the government to make good on its manifesto pledge of an additional 6,000 GPs, and 26,000 other primary care professionals, to enter the workforce by 2024.”