Supermarkets and other private firms are being invited to bid to run GP surgeries as part of a drive to improve access to care in deprived areas
Supermarkets and other private firms are being invited to bid to run GP surgeries as part of a government drive to improve access to care in deprived areas.
Ministers are preparing to set up contracts for 30 of the most underdoctored areas in England. Private health firms, GPs and social enterprises will be free to bid for the contracts.
Ministers believe the contracts will encourage more providers into the GP market to plug gaps in care as well as improving access by potentially locating clinics in high street stores.
There is currently very limited private involvement in GP surgeries but recently private firms have begun to win contracts to provide GP services - one in London and one in Derbyshire. Firms run by GPs run several services across the country.
A Boots store in Poole also rents out space to a GP clinic - it is expected any supermarkets or high street chain bidding in this new round of contacts would operate in the same way.
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said: "GPs are largely providing a good service, but there are still areas where NHS patients cannot rely on traditional practices.
"We now want to help the NHS plug the last remaining gaps by introducing new services, reducing the pressure on existing practices and giving patients the choice they deserve."
The first four five-year contracts are being offered for services in Hartlepool, County Durham, Mansfield and Great Yarmouth. New services should be in place by the end of the year.
At its annual conference last year, BMA delegates said supermarkets were inappropriate places to have health services as they sold unhealthy products such as alcohol, tobacco and junk food.
Hamish Meldrum, of the BMA's GPs committee, told the BBC he did not object to the contracts being offered. But added: "Existing NHS GPs must have equal right to bid for these contracts. We do not want to see this becoming a backdoor privatisation of GP services."