Waiting times for GPs of at least four weeks are more than three times higher in some rural areas than in London, according to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats.
The party is calling for a strategy to close what it is calling an “urban-rural divide” in access to GPs in England.
The party also said it will put its policy proposal to give everyone the right to see a GP within a week into its pre-manifesto due to be adopted at its party conference in Bournemouth on Sunday.
According to information commissioned by the party and provided by the House of Commons Library, 20.6% of patients living in rural areas in England waited two weeks or more for a GP appointment between April and June of this year, compared to 16.9% of those in urban areas.
For waits of four weeks or more the figure was 6% of patients in rural areas compared with 4.6% in urban ones, the party said.
Far too many people are being left without the rapid care and treatment they need
The four week or more figure for London was 2.1%, compared with 7% in rural parts of the East Midlands, and 6.7% in rural parts of the South West.
The Liberal Democrats say they would give all patients the right to see a GP within a week, or within 24 hours if in urgent need, by increasing the number of GPs by 8,000.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Millions of people across the country are struggling to get a GP appointment when they need one, leaving them waiting in pain and distress. GPs should be the front door to the NHS, but that door has been slammed shut in people’s faces after years of Conservative broken promises and neglect.
“Far too many people are being left without the rapid care and treatment they need, piling more pressure on to our hospitals and other NHS services. Our rural communities are being particularly badly impacted by these painfully long GP waits, showing again how the Conservatives are taking them for granted.
“The Liberal Democrats will tackle this crisis by giving everyone the right to see a GP within a week, or 24 hours if it’s urgent. We will narrow the divide between rural and urban areas, ensuring everyone can see a GP when they need to and get the care they deserve.”
Chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs Professor Kamila Hawthorne said: “Our patients should be able to see a GP when they need one, regardless of where they live, and GPs are as worried and frustrated as they are when they have to wait longer than they should for appointments.
“But while arbitrary access targets make good soundbites and might win votes in the short-term, they are not the solution to the crisis in general practice that is threatening to destabilise the entire health service.
“Demand for our services is rising at the same time as we have more GPs leaving the profession than entering it, and general practice itself is now in dire need of support after years of under-investment and poor workforce planning.”
She added: “Each GP in England is now responsible, on average, for over 2,300 patients – an increase of over 160 patients from the end of 2019 – and this is not sustainable. These shortages are even worse in rural and more deprived areas, with GPs looking after more patients (per Full Time Equivalent).
“Our patients and our GPs and their teams deserve better, and we urge all the political parties to wake up to what is really happening in general practice and come up with practical solutions.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “GPs are vital to local communities and appointments are already on the rise – but we’re committed to increasing capacity so that practices can offer more to patients.
“We recently announced £240 million to support practices to tackle the 8am rush and make it easier and quicker for patients to see their GP using technology.
“And our long-term workforce plan will deliver the biggest training expansion in NHS history and recruit and retain hundreds of thousands more staff, including in rural areas.”