David Cameron may have gone into the election promising to deliver "a truly 7-day NHS", but the real truth is that there are many people who can't even register with a GP.
Yesterday the GPs' magazine Pulse reported new figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which show that, since April 2013, closures of GP surgeries across the country have forced more than 160,000 patients to find a new GP. The number of practices that have closed in this period - 61 across England, Wales and Scotland - rises to more than 500 when practices lost to mergers or takeovers are included. The Chair of the British Medical Association's General Practice Council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, described these figures as the "tip of a much bigger iceberg".
The reason for this increasing crisis is obvious: we aren't recruiting enough GPs and we're losing far too many. This is not a surprise given the huge increase in GPs' workloads in recent years. In fact, the BMA recently released the results of a survey which indicated that, nationally, nine out of ten GPs now feel that their heavy workload has an adverse impact on patient care.
This is yet another example of how government policies have hit densely populated urban areas, like my constituency in Islington, really hard. The last government made significant changes to the way GPs are paid, but did so almost completely under the radar. Areas with higher numbers of older people now get more money, and in practice this often means that many inner city areas, where there are higher levels of deprivation and associated problems like mental illness and addiction, lose out.
Just last week a GP surgery in my constituency, Holloway Medical Centre, announced that they will close their doors for good on 24 July after 40 years of serving local patients.
As shocking as this news was to patients at the surgery - including one woman who wasn't even informed directly but heard the news second hand from a local chemist - the third announcement of a GP surgery's impending closure in Islington this year, sadly, came as no surprise to me. The struggles Islington's GPs are faced in terms of their workload have already led to the resignation, announced back in March, of all three GPs at one local practice in Mitchison Road. Further resignations at Bingfield Street surgery and Holloway Medical Centre soon followed, and more could be on the horizon.
Given that GPs are essentially a private part of our health care system, providing services independently of the rest of the health service, NHS England is supposed to take a strategic approach to co-ordinating GP practices. So I've written to them asking what their plan is. How can everyone in Islington get access to services that will meet the whole range of their medical needs?
What they say is that they are consulting patients at the surgeries that are closing. This is all very well, but what are they actually consulting about? What if the patients simply say they don't want their GP surgeries to close? What happens then? And as far as I can see they are not giving any information to patients about where supposed to go if their surgeries do close. This whole process starts to look less like a consultation and more like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
As GP services find themselves under increasing strain it's inevitable that more and more patients will have to resort to A&Es to get the treatment they need. This has already become a major problem in recent years and is set to get worse.
So David Cameron may have promised to deliver a seven-day NHS, but how is that going to work? They didn't have a plan to fund this policy at the time they announced it (as Labour pointed out) and they still don't seem to have a plan now. As if that's not damaging enough to the government's credibility, let's also bear in mind that Cameron made the exact same promise during a General Election campaign five years ago. Look how that turned out.
Now that the Tories have a governing majority it's time for them to get behind their campaign slogans and get a grip on the crisis our GP surgeries are now facing. I look forward to getting some answers from Jeremy Hunt when I question him about this issue on Tuesday. GPs are the lifeblood of a functioning NHS and the public won't tolerate complacency from a government that bears a large measure of the responsibility for this mess.