Last reviewed 8 October 2013

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that GP surgeries will be able to bid for funding to roll out Skype and telephone consultations with patients, as well as extend their opening hours.

Around 50 GP surgeries in nine areas across England, covering half a million patients, he stated, will receive £50 million in new funding to cover initial reconfiguration costs and take on extra staff for the trial. If the pilot is successful it is likely to be rolled out to other practices with the aim of offering 8am to 8pm consultations, seven days a week, and other services such as telecare.

The Conservatives hope that improving access to GPs will relieve the pressure on accident and emergency (A&E) wards and lessen the risk of a crisis in the winter, as well as appealing to families who want more convenient appointment times. Prime minister David Cameron told Sky News: “Since 2004 when the GP contract changed we see four million more people a year going to A&E so I think we are not getting the balance right at the moment.”

Chief inspector for general practice Professor Steve Field said that the move to seven-day services should be “embraced” by GPs: “I want to see brilliant access to GP services for patients across the country, and will be assessing this in each practice I inspect.”

The Royal College of GPs said doctors were keen to do more but added: “We now need the Government to go much further and give general practice its fair share of the NHS budget so that GPs can deliver more care and better access to services for their patients in the community.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) GPs committee chair Chaand Nagpaul said GPs were open to new ways of working to benefit patients but warned that issues around GP numbers and support services needed to be addressed. He added: “Without extra GPs the existing workforce will have to be stretched over seven days, meaning potentially reduced services during the week. It will also require additional resources and investment in support and diagnostic staff such as district nurses and access to community care so GPs can meaningfully provide a full service across the week, and it remains to be seen if the money set aside will be enough to deliver this.”

North-east Bristol practice GP partner Zara Aziz wrote in the Guardian that as women GPs will soon outnumber men, with many juggling childcare responsibilities, out-of-hours services will be unattractive to many doctors. She added: “Rather than introduce blanket routine extended opening hours, wouldn’t we all be better served if GP surgeries were tailored to the needs of their population and offered robust long-term care to the majority of patients?”

According to BBC health correspondent Nick Trickle, the people of working age who are most likely to make use of the extended hours services are the least likely to need a GP, whereas older people and children, who are the most frequent users, “tend not to have a problem attending appointments during regular hours”.

David Cameron said he expected the first wave of pilots to open during 2014/15. NHS England will work with organisations to identify innovative GP groups to lead the pilots and bid for a share of the “challenge fund”.