Northern Ireland has begun the process of dismantling GP fundholding, prompting hopes that its new system will be superior to England's primary care groups.

Bairbre de Brun, minister for health, social services and public safety, said last week that she would bring forward proposals to end fundholding 'as soon as possible'.

No deadline has been set for the consultation process, but there is a strong expectation in the health service that, after years of delay caused by the changing political situation, she will deliver quickly.

Ms de Brun acknowledged that previous health ministers' blueprints for change, which were never implemented, had only succeeded in creating 'a lot of uncertainty'.

'I believe it is time to end that uncertainty and to start to map out a clear way ahead, ' she said.

Former Northern Ireland health minister John McFall proposed last year that GP fundholding and the four existing health and social services boards should be abolished and their functions taken over by five 'health and social care partnerships'.

These would be controlled by primary care professionals.

At the time, the plans, which were only offered as a 'vision' for Mr McFall's successor in the Northern Ireland Assembly, were given a muted welcome as a 'contribution to the debate'.

GP Ian Clements, a member of Northern Ireland's only multifund, and chair of Eastern health and social services board's GP forum, said he now expected a 'fairly radical review' to take place but hoped this would not mean too much structural upheaval.

'We would hope there could be naturally evolving commissioning groups, 'he said.

'Most of the province is now involved in commissioning groups.

The scene is set. We are keen to move now to something definitive.'

Dr Clements said fundholding had been a 'stepping stone' and he would be 'concerned if we were not able to use all the experience we had got through fundholding'.

He also said he would be concerned if 'the many excellent managers' who have emerged through fundholding weren't incorporated into the new structures and models.

Suggestions that English PCGs should take over the commissioning of social care recently sparked huge controversy.

Dr Clements predicted that Northern Ireland's alternative would be able to 'extend' England's PCG model from the start because its health and social services are already integrated.

He added that the province might also find it easier to have 'meaningful' multidisciplinary team work.

'There have been some difficulties in PCGs in terms of recruitment. We have had time to engage all our colleagues.'

Bob Ferguson, chief executive of South and East Belfast Health and Social Services Trust, also said Northern Ireland's integrated system, and the chance to learn from PCGs' experiences, were 'advantages'.

'I would hope we would look at issues of accountability, which are a bit unclear in the primary care trust model in England, ' he added.

Ms de Brun used her announcement to stress that most health and social care was already provided by family doctors, nurses, health visitors and other primary healthcare professionals.

'It is clear that developing primary care must be central to our efforts to improve the quality of health and social services for the whole population, ' she said.