GPs have secured “significant concessions” from NHS England in an apparent climbdown over patient access and face-to-face appointments, the Guardian has been told.
Family doctors in England have threatened industrial action in protest against the government’s attempt to force them to see any patient who demands an appointment in person.
The British Medical Association (BMA) GPs committee voted unanimously to reject plans by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, which included “naming and shaming” surgeries that see too few patients in person, setting up what could be the first big clash between the medical profession and ministers in more than five years.
However, in private talks to resolve the crisis on Wednesday evening, NHS England told the BMA there were no longer any plans to publish monthly “league table” data showing what proportion of surgery appointments occur in person or virtually, according to sources. Separate plans to create specific targets for what proportion of appointments must be conducted in person have also been abandoned.
An NHS source claimed “naming and shaming” GPs responsible for low levels of face-to-face appointments had never been included in the plans; they only included the guidance saying “appropriate levels of face-to-face appointments for patients based on local need must be delivered”. The NHS source added that “while more localised access data will be published, the plan does not include ‘naming and shaming’”.
Amid concern about rising levels of abuse aimed at family doctors, senior NHS officials have also agreed to a “zero tolerance to abuse” campaign, which will be backed by Javid, sources said.
The BMA is still talking to its members about possible industrial action, which could lead to family doctors at the 6,600 practices in England reducing the work they undertake. However, senior officials on both sides will hope the concessions offered go some way to de-escalating the threat of industrial action this autumn.
A BMA spokesperson said: “These are significant concessions from what the government was talking about just two weeks ago, so we will need to give them serious consideration.”
The talks came as figures published on Thursday revealed a jump in the number of appointments offered by GPs in England, and a rise in face-to-face appointments.
Figures from NHS Digital show that an estimated 28.5m appointments took place in September – about 8% higher than for the same month in 2019, and more than 3m on the figure for August.
Of the appointments made in September 43.2% took place on the same day they were booked and 61% were in person. This 17.3m total for face-to-face contacts was the highest figure recorded since February 2020 and was up by about 3.5m on the figure for August, when 58% of appointments were face-to-face, the data suggests.
Before the pandemic about 80% of general practice appointments were conducted face-to-face. GPs have come under fire over allegations that they are not offering enough in-person appointments, which prompted last week’s threat of industrial action.
Prof Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “Today’s figures highlight just how extremely hard GPs and our teams are working, caring for patients in their communities and alleviating pressures elsewhere in the NHS.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “These latest figures show that general practice is working hard to ensure that patients get the care they need with over 17m face-to-face appointments in September – the highest number since the start of the pandemic – and over 3.5m more than in August.”