The new health secretary has promised all GP patients in England will be offered an appointment within two weeks for non-urgent needs, as part of new plans to tackle the record backlog in the health system.
Therese Coffey will set out her new "Plan for Patients" to receive easier access to NHS and social care this winter and next, in her inaugural announcement as health secretary on Thursday.
She is expected to announce initiatives to improve access to GPs, including plans for pharmacies to take pressure off surgeries, while also addressing the issues at the heart of ambulance wait times.
Her plans come as 15% – 3.9 million – of the 25.9 million GP appointments made in England in August occurred at least two weeks after the appointment was made, NHS Digital figures show.
The deputy prime minister will also call on the public and retired medics to volunteer or return to the profession as part of a “national endeavour” to help the NHS and social care's staffing problem.
She is expected to urge the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to come forward again.
But GPs have slammed the plans, saying they will have “minimal impact” on patient care, while leading medical organisations say the health secretary did not meet with them to hear their suggestions to ease pressure on staff.
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting told ITV News it was "outrageous" that "after 12 years in government, the health secretary is presenting a two-week wait for patients as if it's good news".
"What the health secretary is proposing is a betrayal of patients - it's lower standards and expectations," he said, as he accused her of having "no plan to rescue and reform" the NHS.
"The government won't fix the fundamental problem in the NHS which is we need more doctors, more nurses, more staff and a serious workforce plan.
"Asking the Conservatives to fix the NHS is a bit like asking the arsonist to put out the fire they created - it's just not going to happen."
Mr Streeting said under Labour, the target for GPs to offer patient appointments was 48 hours - and they met that.
However, Ms Coffey told ITV News: "Well, actually, clinicians told us that was a terrible policy that they had to put in place and could be... quite harmful for patients."
She said there was disparity across the country in the times patients were waiting and that the two-week target was a "first step in making sure people get access to their GP".
On the issue of staff retention in health and social care, Ms Coffey was asked why the government is not considering raising doctors' bonuses at a time when it is planning to remove a cap on bankers' bonuses.
"There's considerable amount of financial support already for the health and social care system," she replied.
"But the doctors have been telling us some of the reasons why they're leaving the NHS and that is connected to things like pensions."
She said by introducing more "pension flexibility" she hopes some medics will stay longer in the NHS, while she plans to make the process "easier for people who've already retired to return to help the NHS, particularly in these challenging next two years as part of a national endeavour to make sure that we can tackle these backlogs".
During her announcement, Ms Coffey will also announce plans to ease the 8am scramble for GP appointments by rolling out new telephone systems, meaning patients are not automatically cut off if there is no-one available to take their call.
Elsewhere, she will outline plans to publish data so patients can assess how their GP practice is performing compared to other local surgeries with regards to the number of appointments delivered and how long people need to wait for care.
Patients with non-urgent needs will not have to wait longer than a fortnight to be seen, she will say. Patients who have urgent needs will still be offered same-day access.
Meanwhile Ms Coffey, will say the government will “free up funding” for practices to employ more roles, including GP assistants and more advanced nurse practitioners - but officials have not outlined how much money will be made available.
Government officials have estimated 1.2 million appointments each year can be handled by other surgery staff.
Pharmacists will also be given new responsibilities to manage and supply more prescriptions such as contraception, she will say.
This could free up a further two million appointments every year, officials have estimated.
Pharmacists could also take referrals from emergency care for minor illnesses or symptoms, such as a cough, headache or sore throat, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
“I will put a laser-like focus on the needs of patients, making their priorities my priorities and being a champion for them on the issues that affect them most,” she is expected to say.
“We know this winter will be tough and this is just the first step in our work to bolster our valued NHS and social care services so people can get the care they need."
Amanda Pritchard, NHS England chief executive, said: "NHS staff are working incredibly hard to deliver record numbers of GP appointments for patients, with 11 million more this year so far than the same period last year, and more than four in five people who need an appointment seen within two weeks, including more than two fifths within one day.
“We will work with the Government so we can support NHS staff to deliver these new ambitions for patients, underpinned by the development of a long term workforce plan.”
Commenting on the plans, Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “It’s a shame that the Health Secretary didn’t talk to the College and to our members on the front line before making her announcement because we could have informed her of what is really needed to ensure a GP service that meets the needs of patients and is fit for the future.
“Lumbering a struggling service with more expectations, without a plan as to how to deliver them, will only serve to add to the intense workload and workforce pressures GPs and our teams are facing, whilst having minimal impact on the care our patients receive.”
Meanwhile Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, said that the NHS could be facing a very tough winter.
Asked at a briefing on winter pressures how bad it would be on a scale of one to 10, he said: “My answer would be 10. The NHS is already under a lot of pressure.
“So it’s quite likely this winter will be even worse than it is now through to January or February, so I think it could be a very bad winter for the NHS this year.”
It comes after health leaders urged the government to invest in social care in a bid to alleviate pressures in the NHS.
The NHS Confederation said social care investment would be the “best and most effective action” the Government could take to alleviate “the most extreme winter pressures that the NHS has ever faced”.