Virgin territory for the NHS

For most working people, getting in to see your local GP in any kind of reasonable timeframe is like trying to get a lunch appointment with the Queen. By the time you’ve booked a slot and arranged to take time off work, chances are it’ll be too late to do you any good.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The good news is that the government wants to help fix this deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. The bad news is that this is the same government that has poured billions of pounds into the NHS for no discernible benefit, including a disastrous IT system that was apparently designed to make GPs’ lives a misery.

The latest poor soul asked by Gordon Brown to ‘think the unthinkable’ on NHS reform is health minister Sir Ara Darzi (let’s hope he has more luck than Frank Field did with benefits). And given the government’s track record so far, he has come up with the only sensible solution – get the private sector involved.

The radical new scheme involves giving patients more access to GP services at flexible times, in locations that are more convenient for working people. This might include big stores like Tesco, high street pharmacies like Boots and Lloyds, or health clubs like Virgin Active. The theory is this will ease the burden on over-loaded hospital A&E departments.

The British Medical Association isn’t impressed – it believes the system could lead to conflicting diagnoses (which doesn’t suggest a huge amount of confidence in its members).

But clearly something needs to be done. According to the CBI, problems accessing GP services are costing the economy about £1 billion a year – with one in three people apparently unable to get a convenient appointment, 175 million days are lost to sickness every year, it reckons.

So if Sir Richard Branson – fresh from selling out of his first ever high street venture, Virgin Megastores – can help to put that right, then so much the better. We might even see a few more Virgin births…

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