Labour has watered down plans to tear up GP contracts to save the taxpayer money, admitting the reform will take a generation to deliver.
A party spokesman appeared to scale back the vision laid out by Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, to overhaul doctor services.
It came after Rishi Sunak savaged the proposal in the Commons, arguing that it would create even more disruption for the under-pressure health service.
The Prime Minister quoted Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, who warned that it would “cost a fortune to buy out the partners and premises”.
Labour rowed back, saying there were no plans to spend money on paying off existing contracts. The party spokesman said the change would instead be brought in as “natural wastage” saw GPs on the current pay deal retiring.
In an interview last week, Mr Streeting said he wanted to fundamentally overhaul the “murky” GP system to save taxpayers money.
At the moment, most doctors surgeries are set up as small businesses, which are then contracted by the NHS to provide certain services.
Half their income comes from the “global sum” they are paid to provide core levels of care, which is calculated based on how many patients they have. They also get top-ups to their funding for achieving targets and offering “enhanced” services, and are able to charge for private work.
Labour is looking at scrapping that system and making all GPs directly salaried NHS employees working in new “health centres”.
Mr Sunak hit out at Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, over the plan at PMQs on Wednesday, saying the NHS “don’t need Labour’s only idea, which is for another completely disruptive, top-down, unfunded reorganisation buying out every single GP contract”.
Afterwards, a spokesman for Sir Keir said the change would not apply to existing doctors. He added that instead Labour was “consulting” on the possibility of making all new GPs who join the service in future directly salaried.
“It’s already the direction of travel within the NHS that directly employed GPs are becoming the more common way of entering into service,” he said.
“What we would be looking at is how we can promote that and as time progresses, the existing partnership model will be phased out.”
Asked whether that meant the reform would take “a generation” to fully deliver, the spokesman said: “That would be a logical conclusion.”