HALF of family doctors believe patients should be charged up to £25 for appointments, to deter them from turning up at surgeries unnecessarily, a new survey suggested.

The fees were conceived as a way to help the NHS cope with rising demand for care at a time of tightening NHS budgets.

The national poll of 440 GPs by Pulse magazine found 51 per cent were in favour of introducing a charge from £5 to £25.

Ministers and NHS chiefs have ruled out the idea, but the results have added to concerns about the future of free healthcare.

Azhar Ali, Labour’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing at Lancashire County Council, said charging patients was a ‘crazy idea’.

The Nelson councillor said: “People would stop going to their GP if they couldn’t afford it, and we’d get a two-tier service with the poor squeezed out.”

Dr Malcolm Ridgway of Witton Medical Centre in Blackburn said charges would create problems for patients and the NHS.

He said some patients may not see a GP when they should, due to the cost, so a complaint could end up developing into a serious condition.

He said: “If it is anything like prescription charges, the majority of patients are already exempt, so what is the point?”

Charges could also add more bureaucracy and discriminate in favour of the wealthy, he said.

The Department of Health said: “We have been absolutely clear that the NHS should be free at the point of use, with access based solely on need.”

However, NHS England's own chair, Prof Malcolm Grant, said in April that whoever comes to power after the coalition will have to consider introducing charges for NHS services because of the pressure on public finances.