In his first address as Secretary of State for Health to primary care chiefs, Jeremy Hunt has emphasised his confidence in placing GPs at the heart of the new commissioning system, despite the profession being 'overstretched' already.

Hunt told delegates at the NHS Alliance conference in Bournemouth: "I think you have won the argument for an NHS driven by local decision making and clinical leadership. The integration of services has been the holy grail for so long - now it's finally going to happen".

He also stressed that giving the NHS greater operational independence from politics "is not an abdication of responsibility". 

"I've never believed that the new system has made me less accountable," he said, adding "local freedoms to innovate are far more likely to deliver the change we need than me sitting at my desk flicking levers."

The new breed of clinical commissioning groups will be able to find better ways of delivering care on the front line and at local level, and in doing so will help to protect the core values of the NHS, he said.

However, in response to one practice manager's concern over how GPs, who will be taking on the bulk of NHS commissioning from April next year, will get the "head space" to work out how to implement the changes under the new system, Hunt conceded that this indeed is a "big challenge".

"GPs will be at the heart of all changes, but they're very overstretched," he admitted, noting that while GP consultation rates are on the rise, the numbers of family doctors practicing is not. 

GPs know what to do

But he also argued that "GPs already know the things that are wasteful and will generate savings and it will now be possible [for them] to make that happen," the end result of which should be healthier patients.

He also noted that incorporating advanced in technologies into the system, such as allowing patients to order repeat prescriptions online, could also help alleviate some of GPs' workloads, though he did note that it is still in question whether online consultations would actually save time or have the opposite effect.

Elsewhere, Hunt said that one of the biggest challenges as health secretary is that, as a politician, you have a considerably shorter shelf-life than NHS workers.

This, he explained, is why he chose four priorities to focus on during his time on the job: improving diagnosis and care of dementia; improving mortality rates of the big killers (such as heart disease, cancer, etc); bringing the technology revolution into the NHS; and building a system where equality and treatment of care share equal importance.