James Sunderland raises GP appointment availability with Health Minister

James Sunderland calls on the Government and NHS to work together to tackle the problems patients are having in securing GP appointments and getting their phone calls answered as the demand on the service increases.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) on securing the debate. I listened to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous)—I am sure he was looking over my shoulder when I wrote mine, because some of the themes are quite similar.

I find myself in the curious situation of raising the issue of NHS services in east Berkshire. Why is that curious? Because we are pretty well served, actually. The NHS is pretty good locally. We have three fantastic hospitals on the doorstep. The Frimley ICS is one of the best-performing care systems in the country and recently had a reprieve from the new Health Secretary, who had looked at breaking it up. We are in a pretty good place, and I do not tend to get letters from constituents about the healthcare that they receive, which is very good. In this case, however, I have been receiving letters, and I am quite concerned about it.

What is the perception, and what are people saying to me? Under the current policy, GP practices must now ensure that they offer face-to-face appointments. Only 57% of appointments across the UK are currently face to face, versus 79% before the pandemic, so there is an issue. There is also a perception that it is difficult to get through to practices on the phone, and that there is low availability of appointments and a lack of face-to-face care. Constituents are never wrong, my constituents are not wrong, and if they are writing to me repeatedly about these issues, clearly it is incumbent upon me as their MP to raise them.

What is the good news? Nationally, the narrative is actually very positive. If we look at the current statistics from the Care Quality Commission, the scores on GP access are the highest they have ever been, with a 67% satisfaction rate now, compared with 63% last year. Same-day appointments have gone up. People are satisfied with what they are getting from their GP, with an 88.7% satisfaction rating of “good” or “very good”. As of August 2021, 23.9 million GP appointments were offered and recorded, compared with 23.4 million two years ago, so things are getting better. Things are going up. That is in addition to the 1.5 million covid-19 vaccination appointments delivered in August 2021 by GP surgeries. The service, statistically, is improving. It is good news.

However, the data appears to contrast with what I am hearing locally. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said earlier about how there could be a postcode lottery, or it could be related to the service provider at individual constituency surgeries. Demand is clearly outstripping supply, so Houston, we’ve got a problem.

As an example, one constituent spent 45 minutes on the phone to a particular surgery, tried 159 times to get through and was then offered a telephone consultation for a lump on her neck, which is not great. Constituents have dialled 111 and been advised to contact their GP, then after being unable to get through, they phone 111. We have had multiple complaints from certain constituents in a certain part of my constituency—it would not be fair for me to say where—informing me that the practice has 20,000 patients and only two doctors. The figures do not work. Telephone triage is being used instead of an immediate face-to-face. For flu vaccinations, one particular group practice is advising constituents to travel to the central hub in Bracknell, which causes issues for those less able to get there. We have a capacity problem.

However, it is unacceptable that staff are working under challenging circumstances and facing levels of abuse not previously seen. GPs and staff are working harder than ever before. Retention and staff satisfaction are an issue. Therefore, MPs like me must do more to help to redress that balance, and to balance the narrative. By the same token, GP surgeries also need to take the inquiries that we raise with them more seriously. The GP is not the enemy, and nor is the MP.

My general advice to GP surgeries is this: I think that there are things we can do. We need more staff. Let us do more to recruit staff, particularly receptionist and telephone staff. We need to reassure patients a bit more; they want some TLC after the pandemic, and it is right that they get it. We need to sort out the phone lines. We need to improve electronic referral systems. In Bracknell, we have the new primary care network phone system, whereby calls that cannot be answered by a particular surgery will be rerouted to another, which is quite exciting. We also need communication between surgeries and their patients: tell the constituents what is going on and explain to them why their calls are going unanswered. MPs need to visit surgeries, as I am next week. Basically, let us improve customer service.

I have three points to conclude with. First, care providers in East Berkshire and across the country are working miracles, but are accountable to their customers. I would urge GP surgeries to think about what their customers are saying to them, and to do what they can to reassure them. My second point is addressed to the Minister. The new IPC guidance is forthcoming. When will it be published, and when will GP surgeries get more guidance on what it means? Lastly, I urge everyone listening to this to watch the language being used. We are all in the same space and working hard; doctors and staff are working really hard. Let us please tone it down. All of us are part of the problem, but we are also all part of the solution.