would Conservative GP plans solve the ongoing crisis?

  • Post last modified:June 5, 2024
  • Reading time:6 mins read

This is shaping up to be a very strange general election period, isn’t it? The polls are consistently showing that the Labour Party has a jaw-dropping lead over the Conservative Party, with YouGov’s first major poll of the election campaign showing that Keir Starmer could be on track for an even larger landslide victory than Tony Blair’s in 1997. Yet despite the enormity of this lead, its historic significance, and the impact it would have on the shape of UK politics for the next five years, the media is not spending much time reporting on Labour’s policies – specifically the NHS.

General election: policies don’t drive clicks

Conservative policies aren’t attracting much attention either (except for the widespread coverage about their terrible plans for National Service). Policies don’t feel central to the public conversation right now. Instead, everyone is discussing the selection (and deselection) of Labour general election candidates, the scandals surrounding all this, and (huge heart-sink) Nigel Farage.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise, because personality politics and the associated drama, makes for great copy. It’s click-baity, it riles people up online, and all of that drives traffic to news websites and makes money for media organisations. But if we really want change for the country, we need to get to grips with politicians’ plans beyond election day.

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll share information with you about the NHS policies that are being proposed by different political parties, and I thought I’d start today by talking about the 100 new GP surgeries that Rishi Sunak is promising to build in England.

The Conservative Party’s NHS track record

First of all, we cannot talk about the Conservative Party and their plans for primary care without talking about their failures in recent years.

Jeremy Hunt pledged in 2015 that there would be 5,000 more GPs by 2020. They then made another pledge in the 2019 election, saying that they’d increase GP numbers by 6,000 by 2025. As it stood in April 2024, there were actually 1,759 fewer GPs than there had been in September 2015, which is a pretty damning record.

I’m sure there are a lot of people right now who aren’t sure they can trust the Conservative Party to deliver on any of their NHS promises.

But let’s imagine that Sunak did manage to deliver on this promise for 100 new GP surgeries. Is it really what we need right now?

Are more GP surgeries the answer?

There is a crisis in NHS primary care that cannot be denied, and it’s a crisis which hasn’t received enough attention. Politicians and many media outlets have been dismissive of the pressures that NHS GPs have faced since the pandemic, and have even gone so far as to scapegoat them for the problems in the system.

They’ve been accused of “hiding behind their telephones” or “avoiding patients” when in reality they have been under extraordinary pressure to keep their patients safe.

As the NHS waiting lists have grown, many patients have relied on their GPs more and more. Perhaps their symptoms have worsened as their condition deteriorates waiting for hospital treatment. Perhaps their medication needs have increased. Perhaps their mental health has even deteriorated – after all, medical conditions do not sit in isolation.

People who are waiting too long for medical treatment sometimes lose work, or suffer relationship breakdowns, or even experience housing instability. All of these impacts are serious, and situations like this often require a GP to intervene and provide help.

NHS: institutional issues

As the NHS waiting lists have lengthened and politicians have failed to properly tackle the causes underlying the situation, GPs have come under increasing pressure. On top of this, the Conservative government has not funded GP services properly, leading to a situation where some GP practices cannot afford to hire the doctors they need.

Many NHS doctors are losing their jobs as a result and are struggling to find work, at a time when millions of NHS patients are waiting for treatment.

Many NHS buildings are in a very bad state right now, and at the end of 2023, the unmet repair bill in the NHS in England alone was close to £12bn On top of this, many GP surgeries have closed in recent years; in fact, Pulse showed in December that 474 GP surgeries had closed across the UK since 2013.

That’s an enormous number, and it deserves attention, and it’s clear why Rishi Sunak feels that 100 new GP surgeries will make a compelling promise for the public during this general election season.

But if politicians just focus on the buildings, and ignore the staff, they will not fix the problems in NHS primary care.

Yes, we need more GP surgeries, but the health service needs more staff

Even if Rishi Sunak managed to build those 100 GP surgeries, they’ll be no use at all if we don’t have the NHS staff to work within them.

We desperately need politicians from all parties to create bold, transformative policies to restore the NHS to its previous functioning. But those policies have to start with the NHS staff, who deserve proper support at long last.

The public deserves a robust, well-supported NHS workforce; one that is paid properly, has manageable workloads, and is equipped to provide patients with the excellent care they deserve.

Featured image via Rishi Sunak – X

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