Labour plans GP hubs with evening and weekend walk-ins

Mr Streeting is in Australia to examine reforms to its health systems which could serve as a model for an overhaul of the NHS
Wes Streeting is in Australia to examine reforms to its health systems that could serve as a model for an overhaul of the NHS - Graham Jepson for The Telegraph

GP hubs where patients can walk in at evenings and weekends are being planned by Labour in an attempt to “fix the NHS”.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said that if Labour were to win the next general election, the party would conduct a shake-up of GP services.

Under the plans, every part of the country would trial “neighbourhood health centres” bringing together a wide range of services – including doctors, dentists and treatment of minor injuries – and treating millions of patients currently seen in overloaded A&E units.

The shadow health secretary announced the plans as he embarked on a tour of Australia’s health system, which is rolling out a similar model nationally.

Under Labour’s plans, the NHS will be expected to design services that are open evenings and weekends, offering a mix of appointments and walk-in slots.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Streeting said: “One of the fundamental problems with the NHS in the UK is that the front door is broken, with people too often waiting weeks for a GP appointment.

“This delays diagnosis and treatment, it costs money and ultimately it can cost lives,” he said.

Australia’s Labor administration, which won the election last year, is introducing a new system of “urgent care clinics” to ease pressures on A&E units, and bring health services together in one place.

Mr Streeting said that while the Labor health secretary had “the scars on his back” from pushing it through, against the opposition of doctors’ unions, he was prepared to have the same battle, positioning himself as “the patient’s champion”.

A model to save patients’ time

“I want the future of the NHS to be as much a neighbourhood health service as a National Health Service,” he said.

“I think this is a model that will save patients’ time, save taxpayers’ money and fix the front door to the NHS,” the shadow health secretary added.

Analysis by Labour suggests that almost 5 million patients went to A&E last year because they could not get a GP appointment.

Treating patients in A&E is up to ten times more expensive for the taxpayer than the average cost of a GP visit, separate research suggests.

Neighbourhood health centres

While each of Labour’s neighbourhood health centres would be designed locally, they are based on the system being introduced across Australia, which offers walk-in services, 7 days a week, from 8am to 8pm.

In Australia, patients are still expected to see their own GP or dentist for routine appointments, with urgent care clinics offering walk-in care for situations that are urgent, but not a major emergency.

All the UK centres would include GPs, with some areas including dentists in their provision – potentially offering check-ups as well as emergency appointments.

Earlier this week Oxford University research found that the rise of remote GP appointments has increased risks to patients.

Mr Streeting insisted that the new plans would mean more face-to-face contact with local services, without patients being “passed from pillar to post”.

The new policy echoes attempts by the last Labour government to introduce what was called a “polyclinic” model to reform GP services.

The reforms, in the dying days of Labour, were fiercely resisted by the British Medical Association, and just a handful of clinics were open by the time the coalition government formed and halted the roll-out.

Under the new policy, each of England’s 42 “integrated care systems” – responsible for the running of local healthcare – would be asked to design a neighbourhood health centre, to meet the needs of specific communities.

As well as bringing together core services such as GPs, district nurses, dentists, physiotherapists, and mental health workers, health systems would be able to partner with charities and voluntary groups to provide specific care, such as help for the elderly.

They could also decide whether it worked better for GPs to be self-employed or on staff.

Pledge to ‘bring back the family doctor’

Mr Streeting said the changes would mean patients – especially elderly people, with multiple conditions – could have more of their health needs dealt with at the same time.

It follows his pledges to “bring back the family doctor” – with GPs paid more for ensuring patients can see the doctor of their choice.

The shadow health secretary said plans to boost continuity of care would be backed by efforts to reduce bureaucracy for GPs, replacing the current system of “box-ticking” which pays GPs for meeting hundreds of different targets.

Most of the core targets – such as four-hour waiting limits in A&E – have not been hit since 2015, with Mr Streeting on Friday accusing the Government of “being asleep at the wheel”.

In May, the Government promised to improve access to GPs, with everyone able to get an appointment within two weeks.

But latest monthly figures show more than seven million people waiting longer – one in five patients.

Annual data shows two-thirds of patients rarely or never get to see their preferred doctor, up from half in 2018, while one in six did not get an appointment at all when they last tried.

‘I will be the patient’s champion’

Mr Streeting said: “The thing that I hear from GPs and from patients is they really value that family doctor/patient relationship.

“But with thousands fewer GPs than we need, and people struggling to get through the front door to see any doctor, let alone their own one, that relationship has broken down,” he said.

The politician has repeatedly pledged to take on “vested interests” including doctors’ unions, in order to improve patient care.

He insisted he would not be swayed from the need for radical change to save the NHS.

He said: “When I first said the NHS needed to reform I was greeted with howls of opposition and people saying don’t use the ‘reform’ word, it goes down like a bucket of sick. I think staff and patients are now crying out for change.”

“For me, the patient must always come first – if I’m the health and social care secretary for England, I will be the patient’s champion,” he said.

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