Much of the media coverage yesterday concerning the row between the [English] government and the British Medical Association (BMA) over a proposed new contract for GPs in England obscured the fact that the dispute is completely limited to England. I was driving for much of yesterday and so was able to listen to several radio news reports at different times of the day. The morning bulletins failed to mention at all that this was an England-only matter. In the BBC Radio Four evening news, there was a single mention of the fact that the [English] Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, would be writing direct to GPs in England to put the government’s case.
The story on the BBC News website does mention England three times but in a way that also doesn’t make it completely plain that the dispute is exclusive to England. The article twice states the fact that Alan Johnson will “be writing to every GP in England”; and reports that “if they [GPs] reject it, ministers will impose a tougher settlement in England”. If you were not aware that Alan Johnson’s responsibilities are restricted to England, you could conclude from these statements that what’s happening is that greedy over-paid English GPs are resisting longer and more flexible surgery opening hours, while their counterparts elsewhere in the UK have embraced the changes. Hence, a tougher solution has to be ‘imposed’ on England, whereas it’s been willingly accepted elsewhere.
This is not true. It’s basically an issue of unequal funding of GP services in England compared with Scotland and Wales, along with a privatisation agenda for England that is a complete non-starter in the rest of the UK. The BMA does not object to extended hours for GPs in England but is resisting the government’s proposals because they are not accompanied by any additional funding. According to the BMA, this could result in an inferior quality of service to patients during daytime hours, who include those who are most in need of a sustained level of care from a medical team that knows them and their condition – something that traditional general practice provides so well. The BMA believes that the government is deliberately trying to push a confrontation with doctors in England, so as to make out that English GPs are unwilling to provide the extended services the government claims it wants to promote (without funding them). This will enable it to introduce so-called ‘polyclinics’: large multi-practitioner primary-care clinics run by multinational companies. These clinics would effectively mean that the government was ‘outsourcing’ much of the GP service to commercial providers, thereby cutting its costs, and resulting in a decline of traditional general practice along with the continuity of care and of relationships with doctors that it facilitates.
In England, that is, not in Scotland or Wales. The plans for the health services in both those nations (see links in previous sentence) involve a more collaborative relationship with the BMA in planning extended roles for GPs – including, yes, extended surgery hours – but as part of schemes where the resources are being made available to ensure that service provision is improved in local areas where the need is greatest. In other words, GPs will work longer and more flexible hours, and their responsibilities will grow; but this work will be properly funded by the public sector and planned out as part of an integrated programme for improving care for the most vulnerable.
By inadequately conveying the fact that the row over GP terms and conditions relates to England only, the media is effectively supporting the government in pushing a whole separate agenda for public health-service provision in England compared with Scotland and Wales.
Verdict: BBC Radio News, 1 out of 5 – one mention of ‘in England’ but not clearly identifying the dispute as exclusively an English matter
BBC News website, 2 out of 5 – three mentions of England; but again, not clear to the uninformed reader that the dispute is about an inequality of funding and disparity of policy for the health service in England compared to those in Scotland and Wales.