This week, Mr Hancock, Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Amanda Pritchard, chief operating officer at NHS England, all stated the NHS is open for patients, but the data shows face-to-face appointments have plateaued, remaining well below normal levels.
The number of patients seeing their doctor in person dropped to just 2.7 million in April, down from 10 million in January. And the figure has only increased slightly to 3.7 million in August – around five million fewer than last year’s figures.
Patients have reported to The Telegraph they have continued to struggle to secure GP appointments, both virtually and in person.
Aletta Welensky, from Hampshire, was told she needed to wait up to a week for her online account to be verified before she could book an appointment, despite being registered with her practice for 18 years.
“The NHS doesn’t feel very open,” she said. “It feels like they’ve put up a lot of barriers to accessing treatment or consultations.”
Dr Mike Smith, a GP from Hertfordshire, said despite doctors working “flat out” during the pandemic, the system “is not working for patients”.
He said: “If I go to my own GP website there are no appointments, I’m expected to join a phone queue, wait half an hour, join a call list …
“I think we need to meet in the middle somewhere, because this is not sustainable. Whatever (GPs) are doing is not perceived by patients to be meeting their needs,” he said.
Writing for The Telegraph online, Theresa Villiers MP, said the figures revealed by this newspaper were “worrying”.
“We need clear principles in place to ensure that those who want and need to meet their family doctor face-to-face are still able to do so,” she said.
Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central said patients were “waiting longer than ever” for an appointment even before the pandemic, but recently constituents have reported they are “struggling” to see their GP face-to-face.
“Remote appointments aren’t always appropriate”, he said.
“As the public health crisis deepens and we move into the winter months, the Government must now ensure GPs have the resources to provide the level of care patients deserve,” he added.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said there was now “abundant evidence” that access to healthcare services has been problematic in the past six months.
And, although virtual consultations work for some, patients “must not be frozen out of the NHS by a rush to ‘digital-first’ approaches”, she added.
Age UK reported that older people have struggled to get through to their practice during the pandemic and “some have just given up as a result”.
“It is crucial that barriers are not put in the way of older people accessing the medical help to which they are entitled, just as much as everyone else,” said Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK.
An NHS spokesperson claimed more than 20 million appointments were booked in August, though not necessarily attended, however this figure is still roughly two million appointments fewer than in the same month last year.
“The new Help Us Help You campaign emphasises that anyone who needs care should contact their local practice,” the spokesperson added.