GP appointments: health secretary aims to end ‘8am scramble’ with £240m upgrade of phones and booking systems

The health secretary said the plans will “ensure patients get the care they need” by replacing old phone and booking systems

Patients will be able to contact their GPs for an appointment more easily under new government proposals to upgrade old phone and online booking systems.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said practices will be handed £240 million this year as ministers aim to end the “8am scramble” of patients ringing surgeries for a slot. The cash will be given to surgeries to “embrace the latest technology” and “ensure patients get the care they need as soon as possible”.

Ministers are calling the new plans an “overhaul of primary care” and said patients would be told on the day how their request would be managed.

New digital phone systems will mean that instead of an engaged tone, callers will get a queue position and a call-back option, and their call can be directly routed to the right professional. Those with urgent needs will be given an appointment on the same day while non-urgent cases should get one within a fortnight.

More receptionists will be trained with their role expanded so they can assess patients’ needs and speed up the booking process. The government will also fund 6,500 training places for “care navigators”, the new label for staff handling calls. They will direct patients to the right doctor or send them to another service such as pharmacies.

GPs to be given £240m upgrade to end ‘8am scramble’ for appointments. (Photo: Getty Images) GPs to be given £240m upgrade to end ‘8am scramble’ for appointments. (Photo: Getty Images)
GPs to be given £240m upgrade to end ‘8am scramble’ for appointments. (Photo: Getty Images)

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the £240 million upgrade will help “deliver on the government’s promise to cut waiting lists.”

He said: “We are already making real progress with 10% more GP appointments happening every month compared to before the pandemic. I want to make sure people receive the right support when they contact their general practice and bring an end to the 8am scramble for appointments.

“To do this we are improving technology and reducing bureaucracy, increasing staffing and changing the way primary care services are provided, which are all helping to deliver on the government’s promise to cut waiting lists.”

The announcement follows Rishi Sunak’s difficult set of local election results which saw the Tories lose some 960 seats. Cutting NHS waiting lists was one of the Prime Minister’s five priorities and he will be keen to show he is delivering on this.

What has Labour said about GP plan?

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting hit out at the government for its “shallow offer” and said ministers should adopt their party’s own plan.

He said: “The reason people can’t get a GP appointment is the Conservatives have cut 2,000 GPs. Better hold music isn’t going to change that. Nothing in this announcement will train more doctors, allow patients to choose a face-to-face appointment, or bring back the family doctor so patients see the same GP each time.”

He added: “This shallow offer shows Rishi Sunak is totally out of touch with the issues patients face, and underlines why he can’t offer the change people are crying out for. The government should adopt Labour’s plan to train 7,500 more doctors a year, paid for by abolishing the non-dom tax status, and enable patients to easily book appointments to see the doctor they want, in the manner they choose.”

The chairwoman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, said: “We await further details of the full access recovery plan, but ultimately the best way to improve access to GP care and address the intense workload and workforce pressures GP teams are working under, is to increase numbers of fully trained, full-time equivalent GPs through effective recruitment and retention schemes.

“Politicians think that promising faster access will improve services and win votes, but many practices are already struggling for lack of GPs and other clinical staff.”