Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, yesterday announced that a current legal loophole which could allow commercial organisations to provide general practice (GP) services in Scotland is to be closed.

The measure, contained within a new health bill, will “help ensure that the future of GP services in Scotland remains within the National Health Service (NHS) family and firmly rooted in the traditions of general practice,” he told parliament.

The governing Scottish National Party (SNP)’s proposal to close the loophole, which was first discussed by Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon in July, was welcomed by the British Medical Association (BMA) in Scotland. It reflects “the importance of general practice as the cornerstone of the NHS,” said BMA Scotland deputy chairman Brian Keighley, who added: “general practice, delivered under the auspices of the NHS will ensure that patient care comes before profit and patients can be assured of continuity of care.“

The health bill, one of 15 pieces of legislation which Mr Salmond’s administration plans to introduce over the coming year, also includes moves to tackle Scotland’s alcohol misuse problems, with a proposed ban on under-21s buying drink at off-licenses and setting minimum pricesfor alcoholic drinks, and to deal with the country’s poor record on smoking-related diseases through a ban on open displays of tobacco products in shops and a tobacco sales registration scheme.

These policies were also welcomed by the BMA’s Dr Keighley, who said the SNP had “taken up the mantle to challenge Scotland’s reputation as the sick man of Europe. Doctors across Scotland witness first hand the damaging effects that alcohol misuse and a lifetime of addiction to tobacco can have on their patients,” he said, adding that the BMA particularly supports proposed measures “to prevent the tobacco industry from flouting existing advertising legislation.”

- The Health Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland have also rejected allowing of commercial companies to provide GP care, and the BMA is solidly opposed to its introduction in England. In June, a petition signed by 1,236,085 people in England was delivered to No 10 Downing Street by Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA’s GPs Committee, which he said, delivered “a stark message to the Prime Minister that the public petitions to him continue to support our existing NHS GP surgeries and improve services to patients by further investment in them."

"Voters don’t want funding to move from GP practices to commercial companies who are accountable primarily to shareholders rather than patients,” said Dr Buckman, adding: “they want to be treated as patients, not customers.’