Health Services: Wantage and Didcot Debate

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Department: Department of Health and Social Care

Health Services: Wantage and Didcot

David Johnston Excerpts
Thursday 18th May 2023

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Johnston Portrait David Johnston (Wantage) (Con)
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I campaign a lot in this House on behalf of young people, having had a career working with them before I got here. I campaign a lot on the environment, which is important to me and to many of my constituents. But the biggest thing I campaign on in this place is infrastructure, because we do not have the infrastructure for the number of houses and the population in the constituency.

I campaign for the reopening of Grove station, which my constituents have wanted for over 50 years. I campaign for better broadband in certain parts of the constituency. I campaign about our roads, because most visitors and most residents, like me, feel that the roads in Oxfordshire are more pothole filled than almost anywhere else we go in the country. We have two important roads in my constituency, the A420 and the A34, both of which have significant safety concerns. Indeed, the last time I had a debate of this kind, it was on the A420 and A34. But the No. 1 infrastructure issue in my constituency is access to health services—in particular, GPs and dentists.

For six weeks or so, I conducted a survey of my constituents, asking them to tell me about their experience of accessing health services. I am grateful to the nearly 3,000 people who completed the survey. More than three quarters of them said that they had found it difficult to get a GP appointment in the past 12 months, which is significantly more than the number who said they had found it difficult to get a dentist appointment, although that figure was also far too high at 44%—the issues for dentistry are slightly different. Only one in 10 people who completed the survey said that they had had no trouble accessing health services, and 5% had not tried to access health services in the past 12 months and so were not able to say whether it had been difficult. Overwhelmingly, I heard over and again that we need more GP surgeries and more dental surgeries. People would like to see other services, such as more mental health provision and more physiotherapy provision, but GPs and dentists had by far the biggest responses.

The situation is most acute in Didcot, where I live. Huge numbers of people have come to live in Didcot in recent years. The Great Western Park estate, with 3,500 homes, was promised a GP surgery, and it is still waiting eight years later, with absolutely no progress having been made. Meanwhile, the new Valley Park development on the border of Didcot will have 4,200 homes, so it will add a lot of pressure. Those two estates alone will add about 18,000 people to the area’s population, which is more than enough to fill a GP surgery, yet we continue to see no progress. After encouraging people not to use NHS services if they could avoid it during covid, we now have a backlog to address, but there was an issue long before covid, too. Infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth.

The politics is that the Liberal Democrats are running every part of local government, including both district councils in the seat I represent, and they run the county council in coalition with the Greens and Labour. Of course, the Liberal Democrats say that this is all the Government’s fault, but they have been in charge of one district council since 2019, and they have been in charge of the other in coalition with the Greens since 2019, so it is not good enough to say it is all the Government’s fault. We have to get to a better system of accountability for both local council leaders and local health leaders.

It is partly about the Government training more doctors, and I very much welcome all the things the Government are continuing to do in this area. We are training 2,200 more doctors than in 2019, and last year a further 4,000-plus took up training places to become doctors. The increase in appointments is welcome, with 2 million more appointments in March 2023 than in March 2022, and there is investment to get 15 million more appointments by 2024.

The recent announcement on tackling the 8 am rush chimes with my inbox. My constituents are constantly writing to explain to me how frustrating it is to ring at 8 am, as they are advised, and not get through. The record goes to the person who told me they had called 117 times, and others have called 89 times. The numbers are huge, with people ringing over and again, getting very frustrated and eventually contacting me to say they do not know what to do. It does not matter how often they ring, because they are not able to get through.

I welcome the fact that the Government are now saying that people who ring will be referred to an appropriate service, such as 111 or a pharmacy, without needing to call back. I also welcome the increased role for pharmacists, because it right that they ought to be able to give out the oral contraceptive pill and medicines for sore throats, earaches and such things. They are well equipped to do that and it will ease some of the pressure on the GP surgeries.

The situation we find ourselves in is not the fault of the existing GP surgeries. Indeed, I asked them to promote my survey and many of them did so, because they are feeling the pressure. Several surgeries have closed their books temporarily because they were simply unable to take on many more patients. Of course, that affects everybody’s quality of life, because people who have lived in the area for a while and used to find it easy to get an appointment no longer can, and people who have moved to a new area and hope to be able to register with a doctor find that they are unable to do so. This is one of the most important services we could be providing for people.

The Minister knows that because I am the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, I am going to swerve housing and planning policy, as I should not be talking about it in that role—I know the rules. However, we do need a couple of things, one of which is a much better accountability mechanism for local councils and local health leaders to plan for population increases and then deliver services as the population increases. The Government can and will train more doctors, but we are making promises to local people about what is going to come with increased numbers of people, and those promises never arrive. People then stop believing in the promises, and those who were not opposed to new houses, because they realise that people need somewhere to live and perhaps their children and grandchildren are struggling to get on the ladder, become resistant to more housing as they have seen so much housing arrive without the services that should go with it.

Let me move on to the other thing that is important to me. It may feel like a side issue, but it is fundamental. In my pre-politics career, I ran charities for disadvantaged young people and promoted social mobility. The medical profession is the most socially exclusive profession in the country—only 6% of doctors come from a working-class background, and someone is 24 times more likely to become a doctor if they have a parent who is a doctor—and it has been that way for some time. To an outsider, the situation seems to get worse. Recently, the British Medical Association’s junior doctors passed a motion to cease apprenticeships into medicine, which are supposed to widen access to it. Almost every other profession has some form of apprenticeship to try to widen access, but the BMA’s junior doctors have passed a motion saying, “We don’t want them.” Given the state of the profession, which in no way reflects the country’s talent, for all sorts of reasons—I used to work on this, so I know that it is about access to work experience, recruitment methods and so on—that is a very retrograde step. That is certainly the case when this is the most socially exclusive profession in the country. We have a shortage of doctors in particular areas, and this is profession where the ratio is at least 10 applicants to one medical school place. I worked with so many disadvantaged young people for whom this was their dream career—it was the most popular career at one charity I ran—so it seems mad that we are not making better use of that talent. I feel sure that it could help ease some of the pressure we are seeing, not just in my constituency, but in others.

In closing, I say to the Minister that I very much want to meet him to discuss how I can bang heads together and make progress to get things delivered. It is a shame that it is not within an MP’s control to be able to deliver new GP surgeries and so on, but I want to work with him to work out how we can do that and possibly have a health hub in my constituency. This is not the first time I have talked about this matter—I have done so more than 20 times—and it will not be the last; I will do so until my constituents get the health services they deserve.