The Prime Minister has insisted that “not everyone needs to see a GP” as he declined to repeat the Conservative target of 6,000 more GPs by 2024.
Rishi Sunak, instead, highlighted the “massive” increase in the number of staff working in GP surgeries and announced that the Government intends to “significantly expand” the number of “specialist GPs” as part of the forthcoming NHS workforce plans.
It comes as ministers announced plans to give more powers to community pharmacists to help ease pressure on family doctors.
Speaking during a visit to a GP surgery in Hampshire, Mr Sunak said the plans would help him meet his pledge to cut NHS waiting lists.
“We’re expanding the range of services that people can get from their pharmacies,” he said.
“It will ease pressure on the system, mean that people can get access to the health care they need quicker.”
But he declined to repeat the 2019 Conservative pledge of delivering 6,000 more GPs by 2024/25.
Mr Sunak said: “Right now, there are almost 2,000 more doctors working in general practice than there were in 2019.
“My dad was a GP, my mum was a pharmacist.
“So, the other thing that we’re doing is investing in lots of other roles. There are actually 25,000 more staff working in primary care more generally.
“If you talk to patients in this practice that we’re at, they get fantastic care from their nurse to treat them for asthma, another nurse for diabetes or a physiotherapist, all different roles that we’re investing more in so that people can get the care they need and allows GPs to focus on what only they can do.
“We are massively expanding the number of people working in primary care.”
Pressed again, he said: “What we are going to be doing is bringing forward shortly a plan, the long-term plan for the NHS workforce.
“Right now, we have record numbers of people in GP training. That’s a good thing. But we want to significantly expand the number of specialist GPs working so the long-term NHS workforce plan will set out our ambitions and how we’re going to deliver that, but they’re already record numbers, we want to go further.
“As well as GPs, it’s really important that we also consider all the other roles in primary care.”
Asked about the pledge earlier on Tuesday, health minister Neil O’Brien told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “(Former health secretary) Sajid Javid said several years ago we were not going to be able to hit that 6,000 target because of everything that gone on and now, overall, there are about 37,000 extra doctors working in the NHS, a lot more doctors and a lot more nurses too, about 52,000 extra nurses.”
Under the plans to expand the role of community pharmacists, patients will be able to obtain prescription medicines and oral contraception without the need to visit a GP.
Treatments for seven common conditions including earache, sore throat and urinary tract infections will be available from a local pharmacy.
Backed by £645 million of spending, the number of people able to access blood pressure checks in pharmacies would be more than doubled to 2.5 million a year under the plans.
Self-referrals will also be increased for access to services such as physiotherapy, hearing tests and podiatry without the requirement to see a GP first.
Mr Sunak outlined the plans as industry groups warned more pharmacies will close unless ministers provide more funding to the “struggling” sector.
Put to him that there are now fewer pharmacies, Mr Sunak told broadcasters: “We are investing more in them.
“Eighty per cent of the country lives about 20 minutes’ walk from a pharmacy, and for many people they are an easier place to access than their surgery.
“That’s why we’re investing more in them and allowing them to do more, and it’s not just more medicines that people will be able to get there.”
The Prime Minister has said he is registered with an NHS GP after acknowledging using private healthcare in the past. His family used to run a pharmacy in Southampton.