Theresa May has ordered GPs to offer appointments 8am to 8pm, seven days a week – or lose funding.
In a personal intervention, the Prime Minister is demanding easier access to surgeries to help tackle overcrowding in NHS hospitals.
A Daily Mail investigation revealed that patients unable to see their GP are inundating casualty units.
Nearly half of England’s hospitals were struggling so badly last week they declared ‘operational pressure alerts’. Six issued the highest level warning, where patient safety was judged to be at risk.
Thousands of GP practices close their doors on weekday afternoons, while others take a three-hour lunch break. Now they will have to open from 8am to 8pm every day, unless they can prove there is no demand for it.
They will be required to give Whitehall officials detailed information on the number and type of appointments they offer.
A Downing Street source said: ‘Most GPs do a fantastic job, and have their patients’ interests firmly at heart. However, it is increasingly clear that a large number of surgeries are not providing proper out-of-hours care – and that patients are suffering as a result because they are then forced to go to A&E.
‘It’s also bad for hospitals, which then face additional pressure on their services. That’s why ministers are calling on GPs to deliver on their commitments – while introducing reforms to deliver in the interests of patients.’
Ministers say they been shown evidence that some GP surgeries are failing to tell patients about extended hours appointments or ensure they are at times that patients want. No 10 says this means that some patients are left with little option but to go to A&E departments.
Figures this week from the National Audit Office showed almost half of GP surgeries close at some point during core hours – with 18 per cent closing at or before 3pm on at least one weekday. This is despite three quarters of the practices that closed receiving additional extended hours funding to provide greater access.
A report from the Commons public accounts committee said part-time hours were partly to blame for the crisis in hospitals. It highlighted how half of the 7,600 practices in England closed at least once during the normal working week, including a fifth that took one or two afternoons off.
Some surgeries were accused of gaming the system and claiming extra cash by staying open slightly later on just one evening a week. Under their NHS contract, GPs have to provide a service between the core hours of 8am and 6.30pm. But surgeries do not necessarily have to be open during these times, as long as they tell patients to call the NHS 111 helpline or an out-of-hours provider.
Labour’s disastrous 2004 GP contract let 90 per cent of GPs stop giving out of out-of-hours care.
Gordon Miles, head of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: ‘Efforts to increase primary care cover – particularly GP out-of-hours services and dentistry – at weekends, and reduced alcohol consumption in the general population, could alleviate this pressure.’ Yesterday, a set of bleak statistics showed that more than four in ten hospitals in England declared a major alert in the first week of the year.
Some 65 out of 152 trusts raised the alarm as bed shortages intensified and A&E departments became overwhelmed.
Officials said the Government had prepared for winter earlier than ever. Mrs May yesterday publicly thanked A&E staff for their tireless work in coping with additional demand over the winter period.
She said that, as a result, a record number of people had been seen within the four-hour target time this winter.