GP surgeries may have to open their doors in the evenings and at weekends in order to make primary care more patient friendly, Health Secretary Alan Johnson hinted in his speech at the Labour Party Conference this week.

“Having increased the capacity of the NHS, we can now concentrate remorselessly on quality, access and safety creating a higher standard of personal service to meet the higher aspirations of the public; moving away from top-down structural change in order that we can dedicate all out efforts to better patient care,” he said.

Johnson outlined various measures to help deliver a personalised health service for patients as well tackle the inequalities plaguing the nation, including: more GPs in deprived communities; GP surgery opening hours at times that suit the patient not the practice; and high-street surgeries and increased pharmacist services to help drive primary care closer into the community.

But Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of the British Medical Association, argued: “GPs are already working extremely hard to benefit their local populations and a recent government survey showed that well over eight out of ten patients were satisfied with access to their practices. It is ironic that on one hand Mr Johnson talks about clinical engagement and yet when it comes to GP hours he does not approach the BMA. We are always willing to talk to the Health Secretary about how the service we provide can be improved but obviously increased opening times and services need considerable resources.”

‘Unprecedented’ opportunity

Johnson went on claim that the Next Stage Review of the NHS, currently underway by Professor Sir Ara Darzi, is an “unprecedented opportunity to shape an NHS which is clinically-led and locally-driven.”

“A ‘clinically-led’ and ‘locally-driven’ NHS is what the British Medical Association has been calling for, for many months, and we hope the government is sincere when it claims to be following this goal,” said Meldrum. But, he stressed: “It is essential that the government engages with the medical profession, not just a few hand-picked senior doctors but doctors working at grassroots level.”