FOUR in ten GPs are calling for a charge of up to £25 for each appointment in a bid to slash demand.
They say the fee would put patients off visiting and make their lives easier.
One even likened the fee to the plastic bag charge, which has led to an 86 per cent fall in use at supermarkets.
Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, a former health minister, said: “Comparing a GP appointment to a carrier bag is really not helpful.
“Seeing a doctor may be a matter of life and death.
“People on low incomes, possibly in debt, may decide not to visit their GP because of the cost and miss an early cancer diagnosis.
“Charging for a GP goes against the principle of care being free at the point of use and may amount to a tax on the sick.”
‘NUMEROUS’ MISSED APPOINTMENTS
A poll of 984 family doctors by GP magazine Pulse found 41 per cent are in favour of charging for NHS appointments.
The same percentage was opposed to the charge and 18 per cent said they did not know.
Those in favour of fees argued it would drive down demand, giving them more time with each patient and for admin.
GPs see more than a million patients daily, with demand up 16 per cent over seven years. Some wait three weeks to be seen.
One GP said: “Although I have previously opposed this, I now genuinely think that people don’t value healthcare services.
“We get numerous did not attends, as do the hospital.
“Charging 5p for a carrier bag has reduced the number of unnecessary carrier bags as people think twice.
“A nominal fee that makes people think about whether an appointment is genuinely needed or if they can access appropriate information in an alternate way might improve unnecessary workload.”
‘PRIMARY CARE IS A PRIVILEGE’
Another said: “I cannot think of any other way of stemming increasing and unreasonable demand other than some form of financial barrier.”
And a third called for “a small, nominal fee that can be claimed back if on low income”.
They added: “It would make people realise primary care is a privilege and not unlimited, while not restricting access for those who need it.”
But others cautioned against the move, saying: “We already charge people for their NHS care, through taxes.
“To charge again would be appalling. The poorest would get sicker.”
Lucy Watson, from the Patients Association, said: “Charging patients for GP appointments would unequivocally be a backward step for the NHS.
“It would certainly lead to some patients needlessly suffering harm by not accessing GP care when they need it, because of fear of the cost.
“At the same time, up-front charges encourage wealthier people to treat healthcare as a consumer good and spend more on it.”
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, from the Royal College of GPs, said practices need more doctors and funding – but not from fees.
She added: “Even a nominal charge for a GP appointment would undoubtedly deter many people from seeking medical help.
“Charging would also create further bureaucracy for GPs and our teams when we are already struggling to cope with unprecedented patient demand.
“General practice is under intense resource and workforce pressures but charging our patients for appointments is not the solution.”