York Press column – RIP Sir David Amess and boosting GP services
October 20, 2021
I could not begin this column without paying tribute to my former colleague Sir David Amess following his shocking murder at a constituency surgery last Friday. Besides being an attack on our democracy, this means the loss of a husband, father of five, and devoted public servant, and above all I will be thinking of his family in the wake of their cruel and devastating loss.
Sir David tirelessly represented his community for nearly 4 decades, putting Southend on the map and passionately championing a huge array of causes ranging from animal welfare to Iranian human rights. He was liked and respected across all parties, and was always faultlessly kind, considerate, and conscientious, with a friendly word for everyone.
Sir David was a model constituency MP, and our Parliament and our society are immeasurably poorer for his killing. That so much violent hatred could be visited on such a gentle soul should lead us to renew our own commitment to defending Sir David’s values, and those of our parliamentary democracy, to which he devoted his life until his last moments. Rest in peace.
Like many MPs, in recent weeks I have been picking up a rising volume of anxiety from some residents about securing face-to-face GP appointments.
I have been monitoring the situation over the last few months, putting down parliamentary questions to the Health Secretary and engaging with the leadership of Vale of York NHS. However, it is vital to bear in mind the essential work GPs and general practice staff have undertaken throughout the pandemic, especially the considerable burden of scheduling local residents for vaccination, while continuing to deliver GP services.
Currently, about 57% of all GP appointments are face-to-face, compared to 70-80% pre-pandemic. Telephone and online appointments were therefore already an important feature of GP care before the virus, and it is valuable for our health service to be able to draw on this technology to maximise the number of patients seen. Understandably, we will not hear much from those who appreciate the prompt attention these new methods provide, but this must not prevent us ensuring that those who feel they need a traditional in-person appointment can have one.
Coronavirus and social distancing understandably led to a massive expansion of telephone GP services and a restriction on the numbers that could come to surgery in order to minimise the risk of transmission. Appointment numbers were also constrained by the time spent cleaning and changing protective clothing after patients, and some practices may also be sadly experiencing a backlog of people coming forward who did not wish to present at the height of the virus.
While it is sensible to keep using these new technologies, now restrictions have eased nationwide, it is understandable residents want to see GPs more face-to-face, though government must of course ensure they have the resources to do this.
There are in fact more GP appointments than before the pandemic, rising from 1.19 million in June 2019 to 1.22 million in June 2021. This suggests the background issue here is increasing demand for healthcare from our ageing population, which means there are large numbers of longer-lived people with complex health conditions than ever before.
I am glad to see the government responding to public concern with a package of measures to assist GPs in seeing patients, including a new £250 million Winter Access Fund to increase the proportion of in-person appointments, and fund specialist services like podiatry and physiotherapy. Crucially, these plans will also reduce the admin burdens on doctors that constrain the time they can spend on appointments, by altering rules on who can provide DVLA medical checks, sick notes and medical evidence requests.
However, in the longer-term, the solution has to be creating new GP capacity through the government delivering on its commitment to provide an extra 50 million GP appointments by March 2024, through recruiting 6000 more GPs and injecting around £1 billion per year into the core GP contract. Numbers applying to train as GPs beat the target last year, and the number of GP training places will rise to 4,000 over 2021. I will of course be pushing hard for York to get its fair share of this.