The speech made by Margaret Greenwood, the Labour MP for Wirral West, in the House of Commons on 21 June 2022.
People are struggling to get GP and dentist appointments, and this is a crisis of the Government’s own making. In their 2019 manifesto, the Conservatives promised 6,000 more GPs in England by 2025 but, in his evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee last November, the Secretary of State said when asked about this target:
“I am not going to pretend that we are on track when clearly we are not.”
Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the BMA’s GP committee, said at the time:
“The bottom line is we are haemorrhaging doctors in general practice. While more younger doctors may be choosing to enter general practice, even more experienced GPs are leaving the profession or reducing their hours to manage unsustainable workloads.”
Recent statistics show there are now fewer than 6,500 GP practices in England, compared with more than 8,000 in April 2013. As of April 2022, there were the equivalent of 1,622 fewer fully qualified, full-time GPs in England than in 2015. All this has happened on the Conservatives’ watch.
The lack of access to GPs has implications for patient safety. We know early diagnosis is important, but it cannot happen if people cannot see a doctor. People who cannot get an appointment, or who face long waits to get one, are at risk of not getting the referral they need, which can lead to health problems down the line. Those who are able to get an appointment but are seen by a GP who is suffering stress and burnout due to the pressures of the job are also put at increased risk.
A poll of nearly 1,400 GPs by Rebuild General Practice in March found that 86% of those surveyed say they do not have enough time with patients, and it found that GPs are seeing, on average, 46 patients a day. This is a matter of great concern, as the safe maximum number of daily appointments, as recommended by the BMA, is 25. Doctors are seeing nearly twice the safe maximum number, which is bad for patients and unfair on very hard-working GPs.
People in Wirral West tell me they have ended up going to A&E because they cannot get an appointment with their GP, which puts more pressure on an already stretched A&E. A recent study by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine showed that, in 2021, an average of 1,047 people a day were waiting more than 12 hours in A&E from their time of arrival, which is wholly unacceptable. People need to be able to access GP services when they need them, both for their own health and to keep the pressure off A&E.
The Conservatives are overseeing an exodus of dentists from the NHS, which is forcing people to choose between paying to go private and going without dental care at all. Research by the British Dental Association shows that around 3,000 dentists in England have stopped providing NHS services since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and that for every dentist quitting the NHS entirely, 10 are reducing their NHS commitment. It also shows that 43 million NHS dental appointments have been lost since the start of the pandemic, which is equivalent to well over a year’s worth of NHS dentistry in pre-covid times. This enormous backlog continues to grow.
The British Dental Association is clear:
“NHS dentistry is facing an existential threat and patients face a growing crisis in access, with the service hanging by a thread.’
A constituent, a dentist in Wirral, has told me that people from Manchester and Lancashire are calling the practice to ask if they can register. The Government have told me that there are no geographical restrictions on the practice a patient may attend, which completely misses the point. Services should be available locally. Who wants to travel for an hour, two hours or longer when they are in desperate pain and need to see a dentist urgently?
Shockingly, 50 children in Wirral under the age of 11 were admitted to hospital for tooth extraction last year. That is bad enough, but the figure is much higher in many parts the country. The Conservatives’ failure to fix this crisis is putting the oral health of children at increased risk. No child should have to end up in hospital because they are unable to get the dental treatment they need.
The Government need to come forward urgently with a plan to fix the crisis in GP access and dentistry. Failure to do so has serious and painful implications for patients.