Wales politics

Saturday morning GP surgeries 'question of priorities'

Doctor's surgery
Image caption A fifth of doctors' practices shut for half a day at least once a week

Deciding whether to open GP surgeries on Saturday mornings will be a "question of priorities" for the NHS, the doctors' union has said.

The BMA suggested offering Saturday appointments - a Welsh government commitment - could mean cuts elsewhere.

Fewer than a third of GP surgeries are open for their full contracted hours on weekdays, it was revealed.

The health minister said GPs were working hard to meet patients' needs, but more needed to be done.

Plaid Cymru said a Labour pledge to extend opening hours at no extra cost looked "highly questionable".

A total of 31% of GPs offered appointments during the "core" opening hours of 08:00 to 18:30 from Monday to Friday without closing for lunch last year.

Newfigures, published for the first time on Wednesday, show an improvement on 2010 when just 19% of surgeries were open throughout core hours.

Another 26% of GPs were within an hour of opening throughout the day in 2011.

But 43% - or 205 doctors' practices - opened for even shorter hours.

Across Wales, 92 practices (19%) closed for half a day at least once a week, a fall of 6% on 2010.

Cwm Taf Health Board, which covers part of the south Wales valleys, was the worst performer. Just 6% of practices were open for all their core hours. The health board has been asked to comment.

Core hours are set down in the UK-wide general medical services contract which GPs sign with the NHS.

Doctors have to be available for emergencies throughout that time, but surgeries do not have to provide routine appointments during the whole period.

At last year's assembly election, Labour's manifesto promised better access to GPs in the evenings and on Saturday mornings.

Ministers say they will be able to provide more convenient appointment times for working people if GPs "re-jig" their hours.

They insist the policy will come at no extra cost and without re-negotiating the GP contract.

Health Minister Lesley Griffiths said: "We are going the right way, but obviously it's a manifesto commitment that we've taken through to our programme for government that we will increase access to GPs for patients across Wales."

The Welsh government said progress was "well under way" to eliminate half-day closing.

Ms Griffiths said the number of GP practices closing for half a day will be reduced by April next year, and more practices will be "required" to offer appointments early in the morning or towards the end of the day.

After April 2013 the Welsh government will start working on extending access to appointments after 18:30. A review is under way into ensuring access on Saturday mornings.

The Welsh government does not collect data on weekend access to GPs, a spokeswoman said.

But Dr David Bailey, chair of the BMA's GP committee Wales, said: "It would mean that is a priority, absolutely. And if you want to prioritise Saturday morning surgery then something else doesn't happen, in the same way as if you want to provide hip replacements or orthopaedics then something in kidney patients don't happen.

"So it is a question of priorities.

"The Welsh government has asked LHBs (local health boards) to prioritise around things like diabetic care, around nursing home care, and many of them felt that was actually more important for their patients than actually having extended hours."

He added: "It's a priority for practices where there's demand from their patients and I think it's important that practices should ask their patients what they think is most important."

Plaid health spokeswoman Elin Jones said: "These figures show the scale of the challenge the government faces in meeting its commitment to extend opening hours and open surgeries on Saturday mornings.

"With this in mind, the government's claim that this can be done at no extra cost is highly questionable."

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