Doctors' surgeries open round the clock

In future patients in the UK will be able to see a GP in the evenings and at weekends.

The move is part of a government drive to make primary care available around the clock.

But a suggestion that private healthcare firms could also be used by the NHS to provide late-night access to GPs is guaranteed to anger Labour MPs.

Apparently other reforms being considered include staffing surgeries late at night with nurses and pharmacists once doctors had gone home.

British Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, wants doctors’ surgeries and other services to be more accessible and to fit in with patients’ busy lifestyles.

Already a big public consultation about general practice, which will inform the forthcoming White Paper on community-based health services, has revealed a huge demand for longer opening hours and regular health checks.

The Government's apparent preference for a choice of providers rather than different NHS surgeries implies an intention to increase private provision.

This would inevitably bring Prime Minister Tony Blair into further conflict with Labour backbenchers who fear the privatisation of the NHS.

It seems that the Cabinet in considering the implications of the 31-vote reverse on the terror laws, are trying to find ways of bypassing Parliament to prevent a repeat of that embarrassment.

According to officials a controversial plan to set up self-governing school trusts, the centrepiece of Ruth Kelly’s education White Paper, will not now need legislation, instead they will be set up under an Act passed in 1998, although Mr Blair will still face fierce backbench resistance to the proposals to require local authorities to respond to the representations of parents.

Health department sources have said that some of the controversial provisions of the forthcoming health White Paper, could also be pushed through without legislation.

The Government is also considering allowing people to register with at least two different GPs, such as one at home and another near their workplace, and under the radical reforms, many practices may open 12 hours a day to help to relieve pressures on the system.

Ms Hewitt has said that banks and supermarkets are open 24/7, but patients who are unable to see a GP out of hours end up going to the hospital accident and emergency department.

Many patients it seems are frustrated by restrictive booking policies in some surgeries.

Hewitt denies the moves are an attempt to privatise the NHS, but rather an attempt to deliver the best services, and the best value for money.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that it was too early to say if legislation would have to be passed to implement possible reforms.

Doctors’ leaders say although they too wish to improve access to general practice in any way that made it more convenient for patients, they are concerned about the possible increase in private firms and the risk of ending the personal relationship between GPs and their patients.

Findings from a public consultation do suggest that the introduction of alternative providers is not popular, and though many want better access to primary care, they fear losing the continuity of a local doctor who knows their medical history.

Private healthcare firms said last night that there were clear opportunities being introduced by the Government for the private sector to provide more primary care services.

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