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Last Updated: Monday, 19 March 2007, 10:39 GMT
Supermarkets to host GP practices
Stethoscope
The government wants to see a range of GP providers
Supermarkets and other private firms are being invited to bid to run GP surgeries as part of a drive to improve access to care in deprived areas.

Ministers are preparing to set up contracts for 30 of the most under-doctored areas in England.

Private health firms, GPs and social enterprises will be free to bid for the contracts, which could include early morning, evening and weekend clinics.

Supermarkets will need to join up with GPs or health firms to host services.

Doctors warned they did not want to see GP services privatised, but said they had no objection in principle if GPs were allowed to bid for the contracts on a level playing field.

We do not want to see this becoming a backdoor privatisation of GP services
Dr Hamish Meldrum, of the British Medical Association

The idea was first mooted in a primary care white paper last year in a bid to improve access to community NHS services.

There is currently very limited private involvement in GP surgeries. Firms run by GPs run several services across the country.

But recently private firms have begun to win contracts to provide GP services - one in London and one in Derbyshire.

A Boots store in Poole also rents out space to a GP clinic - it is expected any supermarkets or high street chain bidding in this new round of contacts would operate in the same way.

Ministers believe the contracts will encourage more providers into the GP market to plug gaps in care as well as improving access by potentially locating clinics in high street stores.

Pressure

The announcement coincides with a publication of a policy review by the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit which argues for more personalised services across the public sector.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said: "GPs are largely providing a good service, but there are still areas where NHS patients cannot rely on traditional practices.

"We now want to help the NHS plug the last remaining gaps by introducing new services, reducing the pressure on existing practices and giving patients the choice they deserve."

The first four five-year contracts are being offered for services in Hartlepool, County Durham, Mansfield and Great Yarmouth. New services should be in place by the end of the year.

More announcements will be made in the coming months.

The British Medical Association has been critical of the concept of supermarkets hosting GP centres.

At its annual conference last year, delegates said supermarkets were inappropriate places to have health services as they sold unhealthy products such as alcohol, tobacco and junk food.

Hamish Meldrum, of the BMA's GPs committee, said he did not object to the contracts being offered.

But added: "Existing NHS GPs must have equal right to bid for these contracts.

"We do not want to see this becoming a backdoor privatisation of GP services."


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