The government is reportedly considering funding cuts to GP surgeries not offering extended opening hours, unless they can prove the demand in their locality is not there.
In a press briefing to Saturday papers including The Telegraph, Theresa May said government funding will be dependent on GPs being able to show that they are offering appointments when patients need them.
Various media outlets have cited a Downing Street source as saying: "It is increasingly clear that a large number of surgeries are not providing access that patients need - and that patients are suffering as a result because they are then forced to go to A&E to seek care.
"It's also bad for hospitals, who then face additional pressure on their services."
The comments follow findings of a National Audit Office report which claims that 46 percent of GP surgeries were closed at some point during core hours, despite the majority (three-quarters) having banked receiving additional funding in 2015-16 for extended opening.
The Royal College of General Practitioners, however, hit back at the criticism, claiming there are often good reasons for this.
"Just because the surgery may seem closed, it does not mean that care isn't being delivered - GPs may still be using this time to conduct telephone or online consultations for patients, or by making home visits. This is especially the case for practices with fewer GPs who cannot leave other clinical staff without GP cover whilst they make home visits, and so the practice has to close temporarily", said RCHP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard.
"It is not the case that GP surgery routine opening hours are contributing to the pressures our colleagues in A&E departments are currently facing," she stressed. "Blaming GPs for the crisis facing our NHS is not going to help anyone, instead we need to start investing in our health service properly, so that there are adequate resources and clinical staff to deliver the care our patients need and deserve."
"Much of the pressure on A&E has nothing to do with general practice: it has to do with seriously ill patients for whom seeing a GP would not prevent a hospital admission," said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA GP committee chair. "These patients are facing delays in being admitted to hospital because of a chronic shortage of beds, as well as delays in discharging elderly patients due to a funding crisis in community and social care".
"This is not the time to deflect blame or scapegoat overstretched GP services, when the fundamental cause of this crisis is that funding is not keeping up with demand," he stressed, calling on the government to "take responsibility for a crisis of its own making and outline an emergency plan to get to grips with the underlying cause, which is the chronic under-resourcing of the NHS and social care."