The latest figures released from the Department of Health reveal that just a minority of GP practices in England are offering extended hours of access.

The extended hours, on which the Government insisted in this year’s round of changes to the GP contract, are intended to ensure practices are open for longer at the end of the working day or at weekends. The British Medical Association opposed the proposal, but its members voted by a small margin to accept the option.

Of the 8,292 practices, only 2,329 offered extended hours on the DH’s census date in June: just 28% of the total.

No GP practices were offering extended hours in 40 of the 150 primary care trusts (PCTs – the local NHS administrative unit) had. The DH release of the figures confusingly states that this 40 of the 150 represents 26% of the total – but their total includes care trusts, which do not commission GP services.

Of the 150 PCTs, just 35 (23%) had achieved the aim of 50% of their GP practices offering extended hours set out in the NHS 2008-9 Operating Framework.

Bad news for Number 10 …
These figures are unlikely to be greeted with delight by health ministers, or by PM Gordon Brown whose twin issues on health have been over access to primary care and healthcare-associated infections such as MRSA and C Difficil.

The ongoing row over polyclinics that the Government has been fighting with both the BMA and the Conservative opposition has led to a semi-pause in hostilities, with ministers and DH officials now describing the new funding for the new facilities as being for “GP-led health centres”.

However, in a spectacularly bad-tempered intervention, Health Minister Ben Bradshaw recently accused GPs of operating “a gentlemen’s agreement” to prevent patient choice of GP practice by closing practice lists. Dr Laurence Buckman of the BMA GP committee described the minister’s allegation as “nonsense”.

.. but some comfort on diagnostic waiting times
In better news for ministers, figures for the end of May showed the number of patients in the English NHS waiting over 6 weeks for one of the 15 key diagnostics tests was 11,800, a decrease of 300 (2.2%) from April 2008, and a fall of 213,200 (94.8%) from May 2007.

This marks further good progress towards the Government’s 18-week target as a maximum waiting time from GP referral to the start of treatment by the end of this year. The number of patients waiting over 13 weeks was 2,700, unchanged from April 2008, but a fall of 97,700 (97.3%) from May 2007. Waits for audiology assessments make up the highest proportion of long waits, but are also continuing to fall. Between April and May 2008, over 6 week waits fell by 400 (16.0%) to 2,200.