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Swale Borough Council approve motion calling for government intervention over GP shortage crisis

A council has called for the government to step in and help amid a GP shortage and growing population which has left the area “grappling for accessible healthcare”.

In a motion proposed by the leader of every political group on Swale Borough Council and passed unanimously, the local authority has asked for intervention from Westminster.

Sheerness Health Centre in Sheerness High Street
Sheerness Health Centre in Sheerness High Street

The borough is currently grappling with one of the lowest patient to GP ratios in the country, and has even faced calls for cheaper houses to entice doctors in.

The leader of Swale Borough Council’s Conservative group, Cllr Lloyd Bowen penned the motion, calling on council leader Cllr Tim Gibson (Lab) to write to the secretary of state for health for support.

Speaking at the meeting of the full council on October 11, Cllr Bowen told members: “The motion before us highlights a critical problem in our healthcare system – the strain on general practice and primary care services.

“We are witnessing the consequences of a system where demand consistently outpaces supply and it's our duty to seek innovative and funded solutions.

“I was talking to a GP last night about this and he said ‘if you were a GP what incentive is there for you to come here, and have that number of patients?

Cllr Lloyd Bowen has proposed the motion. Picture: Swale council
Cllr Lloyd Bowen has proposed the motion. Picture: Swale council

“Or go somewhere else in the country and have a far lower number of patients and therefore be able to provide a more personal service’”

The Teynham and Lynsted councillor detailed the low GP - patient ratio in Swale, with an average of 0.53 GPs per 1000 people in the borough, and in some areas it’s as low as 0.14.

This means the average Swale GP has more than 2,500 patients.

The average across England is 0.75 GPs per thousand people, and 0.62 across Kent and Medway.

“This shortage, further aggravated by GP surgeries closing and recruitment difficulties, has left our community grappling for accessible healthcare,” Cllr Bowen added.

Statistics showing the number of GPs at NHS Sittingbourne doctor practices in March 2023. Picture: Infogram
Statistics showing the number of GPs at NHS Sittingbourne doctor practices in March 2023. Picture: Infogram

Council leader Cllr Gibson, as well as the leader of every other group on the council jointly seconded the motion.

“I chair the patient participation group down at Chestnuts Surgery,” Cllr Gibson told the council.

“We’ve got 10,361 patients and two and a half doctors.

“We’ve lost surgeries in Teynham, we’ve lost the surgery on Canterbury Road.

“We’ve got surgeries in this borough in special measures, we really are fundamentally struggling”

Many councillors linked the increasing pressure to an increase in housebuilding in the Borough without infrastructure to support a growing population.

We’ve lost GPs over the last seven years whilst the housing numbers keep climbing

Population growth in Swale has outstripped the national average, growing by 11.7% between from 2011-2021 to to 151,700, compared to the national average of 6.6%.

“It’s just a nonsensical situation but at the heart of that is that we cannot provide the services that people need at the rate that houses are being built,” said Swale Independents leader Cllr Mike Baldock.

“We’ve lost GPs over the last seven years whilst the housing numbers keep climbing,” he added.

Cllr Richard Palmer (Swale Ind) added: “if we keep building a mass of houses and keep saying to the government we will do this and keep doing it, we are adding to the problem.

“So we’re saying here there’s a problem, but we are creating some of that problem with the way we handle planning.”

He suggested the council could take legal advice and attempt to limit housebuilding until the GP - patient ratio returns to levels nearer the average.

Cllr Alastair Gould (Green), himself a GP, told members that due to the effects of deprivation on health - with the poorest more likely to suffer health issues - many GPs prefer the idea of working in more affluent areas.

“There are practices not a million miles from Swale which act almost like a black hole when it comes to sucking in resources and doctors,” the Boughton and Courtenay representative said.

“There’s very much a domino effect in this both between practices and within practices,” he continued.

“If a neighbourhood practice folds the next practice in line really comes under a lot more stress.

“Likewise if there’s a resignation in the practice – two in the case of my practice at the moment – the remaining doctors are at much higher risk at burnout.”

The motion passed unanimously, meaning the council’s leader will write to government asking for support in encouraging GPs to come to Swale, possibly including financial support to cover housing for GPs moving to the area.

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