The Department of Health has no plans to set a minimum number of consulting hours GP practices should provide during their contracted core hours.

As the government plans to set a minimum threshold for hours practices must be available for appointments outside the hours of 8am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday, there have been calls for them to tackle practices that provide minimal consulting hours, shut at lunchtimes or close for a half day.

A spokeswoman for the DH said setting a minimum number of hours centrally was “impracticable “because it risked some practices providing too many or too few. “PCTS should be prepared to tackle practices not offering enough consulting time – and there is nothing to stop them agreeing a minimum set of hours with practices locally.”

In a letter to HSJ in January Jonathan Weaver, assistant director of primary care commissioning at Westminster PCT suggested that before considering extending GP opening hours it would be helpful for government to define the number of core consulting hours.

Dr Mike Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance, agrees, saying “frankly some are not” available in the hours that are contracted. “What a lot of PCTs are failing to do is quality control their practices in terms of keeping to the contract as it currently stands.”

Dr Richard Vautrey said setting a minimum number of core hours would be a step back to the old GMS contract where GPs were ranked into half, three-quarters or full time based on the hours of contact with patients. “That was deemed to be unsatisfactory by the government hence they moved to a practice based contract which allowed more flexibility of both doctors and general staff and ensured the practice as a whole unit provided the services it was contracted for.”

Northamptonshire Teaching PCT has been encouraging practices that traditionally closed at lunchtime or for a half day to remain open and has generated an additional 198 hours opening time. Richard Alsop director of primary care at the PCT said: “There is a general expectation that practices are open for the entire contract period so we were pointing that out to them. There are still one or two practices that are not doing it and I think we will be taking an increasing hard line.”