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Jeremy Hunt Says New GP Funding Won't Fix A “Burnt-Out Workforce Running On Empty”

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has criticised plans to fix the crisis in GP services (Alamy)

5 min read

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has sharply criticised the government’s plans to help GPs see more patients face to face, describing them as “a burnt-out workforce running on empty”.

Hunt said the package announced by current health secretary Sajid Javid will not “turn the tide” because there is a “massive mismatch between supply and demand”.

Earlier today Javid announced that the NHS will spend up to £250million on a new package of measures aimed at improving access to GPs this winter. The Department for Health and Social Care said the money can be used to fund locums as well as support for GPs from other health professionals such as physiotherapists and podiatrists.

But there has already been criticism after it was confirmed practices which fail to provide an "appropriate" level of face-to-face appointments will not be eligible for the new winter access fund.

There is also concern that sourcing more locum doctors from an already depleted workforce will prove to be an inefficiently expensive way to plug staffing gaps. 

Dr Richard Vautrey from the The British Medical Association said: "GPs across England will be truly horrified that this is being presented as a lifeline to general practice, when in reality it could sink the ship altogether."

Hunt said the government should instead focus on a big recruitment drive, incentives to persuade retired GPs who returned to the workforce during the pandemic to stay on, and relaxing immigration rules to bring in doctors from overseas.

In a Twitter thread posted on Thursday morning, Hunt wrote that the government are “right to address crisis in this sector”, and praised ideas like the new NHS covenant – modelled on the existing military one – and plans for more transparency about performance.

Hunt, who spent six years as health secretary from 2012-2018 acknowledged his own role in the current GP staffing crisis and urged Javid to learn from his own mistakes. 

"As someone who tried and failed to get 5,000 more GPs into the system, I don’t think this package will turn the tide," Hunt wrote. 

“We got thousands more graduates into GP surgeries, but we didn't make progress because experienced GPs were retiring or going part time faster than new trainees arrived.

“The lesson? This is a burnt-out workforce running on empty because of a massive mismatch between supply and demand.

“The only thing that will convince them not to continue retiring or opting for part-time hours in droves, is a clear plan to end the unsustainable pressure they face.”

The former Cabinet minister said there needs to be incentives to get more doctors to move the UK such as waiving bureaucracy for people moving from countries with good medical training such as Canada and Australia, and reforming the pension disincentives “which drive people into early retirement”.

“But sticking plaster after sticking plaster will no longer cut it. Unless we fix workforce planning in the NHS for the long term, the future will be bleak and the number of face to face GP appointments will go down not up,” he added.Javid has insisted that “every penny” is new funding after facing questions over whether GPs can access the new package of funding in addition to surges in winter funding made available annually to tackle increased demand. 

“This is money I secured in the spending round discussions just a few weeks ago for the winter, and this is money directly from that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

But Hunt attacked the model where NHS money is decided by a process of “back-room haggling” between the Treasury and health department, saying if that continues “it will never get the focus it needs – and the crisis will just get worse”.

The NHS said the extra money will also help upgrade GP surgery telephone systems and drive down waiting times, and patients will also be able to see different types of clinicians in general practice - including nurses, pharmacists and paramedics.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS in England, 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."

Javid thanked GPs “for their enormous efforts in the most challenging times in living memory”, and hailed the new plan to deal with underperformance, as well as “more measures to tackle abuse and harassment” at surgeries.

But he failed to turn up at the Royal College of GPs’ annual conference in Liverpool this morning.

"The Secretary of State for Health for England is unable to join us today either in person or by video link,” the group’s vice chairman Dr Michael Mulholland told the audience. 

To laughter he added: "This is because, and I need to get this right, he had to 'clear his diary to ensure he can fight for the NHS in the spending review, or be anywhere else you may have seen or heard him this morning'.

"As I said before, we didn't start the fire.”

Instead the health secretary visited a GP surgery in East London after his media round.

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