GPs who fail to offer an appointment to patients within two weeks will not face any sanctions, the health secretary has suggested.
Thérèse Coffey said the new target, announced as part of an effort to tackle the growing crisis within the NHS, was an “expectation” rather than a guarantee.
She said the number of GPs remained “pretty stable” despite a parliamentary report warning about 700 had quit since the 2019 general election, and admitted the government was “still working” on a long-awaited workforce plan for tackling staff shortages across the health service.
Coffey defended the “our plan for patients” strategy, which she is due to announce formally to MPs on Thursday.
Pressed repeatedly on what patients could do if their GP did not offer them an appointment within a fortnight, Coffey told LBC radio that they could switch practice and said more phone lines would be “opened up to help people get through”.
It was up to the GP and patient whether appointments should be in person or via a phone or video call, Coffey said.
“I know that, throughout the pandemic, there’s been a variety of ways that people have interacted with seeing their GP,” she said. “I’m not going to be overly prescriptive.
“I know that some people enjoy just having a phone call but may need to go in and see the doctor. I know that other patients are very keen in that regard.”
She said more than half of practices were meeting the expectations she had set but added that she was not “intending to take a league table approach”.
After the Guardian revealed the government’s obesity strategy could be axed as part of a wider crackdown on “red tape”, Coffey said she was not intending to make an announcement about the policy.
However, she said she was looking at the effectiveness of health policies pursued by Boris Johnson’s government and “doing an internal summary” of them, declining to comment when pressed on whether she supported the sugar tax.
Coffey signalled that the prime minister, Liz Truss, wanted to take a new approach to the economy by “unlocking regulation” and making growth the main focus.
Asked why cabinet ministers who served in previous governments – including Truss, Coffey and the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng – had not pursued tax cuts more ardently given they were now pressing ahead with them, the health secretary said all Conservative administrations had been focused on “fiscal discipline”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are a sound Conservative government and we will be delivering in a Conservative way. But also recognising we are not prepared to just have managed decline but to focus on growth.”
Labour said the Conservatives could not be trusted to solve the crisis in the NHS.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Maybe after 12 years, expecting the Conservatives to fix the crisis in the NHS is a bit like expecting the arsonist to put out the fire they created.
“It’s not going to happen. The longer we give them in power, the longer patients will wait.”
He added: “I can’t believe after 12 years in government, the health secretary is presenting a two-week wait to see a GP as some great news for patients. When we were in government, we guaranteed GP appointments within two days.”
Streeting said “unless we recruit significant numbers” of new doctors and nurses, “we’re not going to be able to bring those waiting times down”.