Therese Coffey’s NHS rescue plan was today accused of being too focused on targets and ignoring the staffing crisis.
The new Health Secretary announced an ‘ABCD’ strategy in the Commons to fix the crises plaguing ambulances, backlogs, care homes, doctors and dentists.
It includes an ‘expectation’ for every patient to be offered a GP appointment in two weeks and a £500million social care package to help free up 7,000 hospital beds.
Ms Coffey also promised to keep the four-hour A&E wait target that the NHS has not been met since 2015 – despite studies showing it is a life-saver.
She also wants to hire 8,000 999 and 111 call handlers to speed up ambulance discharges and open 31,000 more GP hotlines to end the phone call lottery for appointments.
But critiquing Ms Coffey’s plan from the backbenches, Jeremy Hunt, one of her predecessors, said ‘it is not more targets the NHS needs, it is more doctors.’
There are currently 160,000 vacancies across the NHS and the health service is short of at least 6,000 doctors.
Mr Hunt urged Ms Coffey to publish the NHS workforce plan before Christmas so demoralised staff ‘can at least go into winter knowing there is a plan for the future’.
But the current Health Secretary could not be pinned down on a date. The Liberal Democrats described Ms Coffey’s plan as an ‘A, B, C of failure’.
Therese Coffey, the new Health Secretary, announced an ‘ABCD’ strategy in the Commons to fix the crises plaguing ambulances, backlogs, care homes, doctors and dentists
Almost half of GP appointments are done on the same day but there is massive variation around the country
Daisy Cooper MP said: ‘We were promised an extra 6,000 GPs by 2024, instead we’ve lost almost 2,000.
‘People are now struggling to get appointments because there simply aren’t enough GPs to go around, a new phone system cannot fix this.
‘Even when patients do manage to get an appointment, one in five are being rushed through in less than five minutes.
‘It’s all they have to give, but it’s nowhere near enough time to explain complex symptoms, get a confident diagnosis or to talk through treatment options.
‘Patients are being forced to pay a dangerous price for years of chronic underfunding and broken Conservative promises.’
The King’s Fund said doctors were struggling with demand and ‘setting new expectations and targets will not suddenly increase the capacity in general practice’.
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said: ‘The truth is that we are chronically short of GPs, with the number of GPs per person in England falling year after year.
‘Targets don’t create any more doctors.’
Ms Coffey promised a ‘laser-like’ focus on addressing the NHS crisis as she laid out her ‘Plan for Patients’.
She told the Commons: ‘My priorities are patients priorities, I will endeavor through powerful partnerships with the NHS and local authorities to level up care and match expectations that the public rightly have.
‘Whether you live in a city or town, in the countryside or on the coast, this Government will be on your side when you need care the most.’
Her plan includes a demand for patients to be able to see how well their GP practice performs compared with others.
It will also give them the option to book an appointment at a less busy surgery if their usual family doctor cannot see them in two weeks.
Labour said the message being Dr Coffey delivered to patients effectively amounted to ‘get on your bike’ and find treatment elsewhere.
Under the new plan, the sickest patients will be offered a same-day GP appointment and non-urgent cases should be seen within a fortnight.
But these are only ‘expectations’ rather than firm targets.
The Health Secretary said a range of workers – such as pharmacists, GP assistants and advanced nurse practitioners – will be used to ease the burden on GPs and free up their time.
Ms Coffey will also change funding rules so practices can recruit extra staff, allowing GPs to focus on care and freeing up 1million extra appointments a year.
And pharmacies will be empowered to manage more medicines without a prescription, which could free up an additional 2million GP consultations.
Ms Coffey also pledged her commitment to the four-hour A&E target for people to be admitted, transferred or discharged.
Under current guidelines, 95 per cent of patients should be admitted, transferred or discharged within the 240 minutes.
The target has not been met since 2015, in which time there have been four prime ministers.
Ms Coffey said she recently endured a wait of nearly nine hours in A&E, adding: ‘I can absolutely say there will be no changes to the target for a four-hour wait in A&E.
‘I believe it matters, and I’ll give you a personal experience recently.
‘Just in July I went to A&E, I waited nearly nine hours myself to see a doctor and I still didn’t get any treatment.
‘I was asked to go back the next day, so I went to a different hospital just three miles away and I was seen and treated appropriately.
‘That’s the sort of variation that we’re seeing across the NHS.’
On ambulance wait times, Ms Coffey said there was ‘too much variation in the access and care people receive across the country’.
She said 45 per cent of ambulance handover delays are occurring in 15 NHS hospital trusts.
A lack of staff in social care has created a logjam in hospitals because elderly patients cannot be discharged into care homes.
Ms Coffey promised to create the equivalent of 7,000 more beds at the worst affected trusts this winter to improve handover times.
Ms Coffey said a £500 million fund would enable medically fit people to be discharged from hospital more quickly, supporting them to receive care in the community or their own homes instead.
And hospitals will be encouraged to monitor patients from home using mobile apps and devices that take blood pressure and other vitals.
Meanwhile, the number of 999 and NHS 111 call handlers will also be increased to answer calls more quickly.
Ms Coffey said the NHS ‘will need a true national endeavour’, adding that she wanted to draw on the ‘energy and enthusiasm’ of the 1million people who volunteered during the pandemic.
Mr Hunt ‘welcomed’ her plan broadly but criticised the decision to add more targets to GPs’ workloads.
He said: ‘When it comes to the workforce plan that she recommitted to – and I welcome her commitment to publishing it – could she tell the House will it have hard numbers so that we know how many doctors we are going to need in 10, 15, 20 years’ time, and whether we are actually training them?
‘Will she publish it before Christmas so staff can at least go into winter knowing there is a plan for the future?’
Ms Coffey replied: ‘I want to assure him now I have spent time focusing on the plan for priorities, there is already work ongoing about the workforce plan and I will be hoping to make elements today, working alongside my new ministerial team so that we can maximise that.’
She added the Government planned to ‘make it more straightforward for people wherever they are in the world’ to practice medicine in England.