A state-backed scheme to cover GPs who are sued for negligence has been announced by health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The government is concerned at a potential exodus of doctors from general practice because of the rising cost of insurance.

The Department of Health will develop its own scheme to provide cover for future, and potential historic, claims arising from the delivery of NHS services in England.

Ministers have been working with the four medical defence organisations that currently provide indemnity cover to GPs and with GPs on how a state-backed scheme could work.

The Medical Defence Union, the organisation which indemnifies doctors, has already announced a 50% reduction in GP indemnity costs in anticipation of the scheme’s introduction.

In a statement to parliament, Hunt said the scheme would take up to 18 months to establish and must be in the interests of patients and taxpayers.

A DoH spokesman added: ‘The department understands that the rising cost of clinical negligence is a great source of concern for GPs and impacts negatively on the GP workforce, and we are seeking to put in place a more stable and more affordable system of indemnity for general practice.’

The rising cost of claims against the NHS has been discussed at length in recent months, with one academic last week claiming the costs had the potential to drive doctors out of general practice.

Analysts say the change in the discount rate earlier this year, making compensation payments significantly higher, risked pushing the cost of insurance protection to unsustainable levels.

Simon Kayll, chief executive of the Medical Protection Society, which provides cover for medical professionals, said: ‘The fact that the government has recognised the importance of protecting GPs from the increased costs, after months of discussions, is positive.

‘A scheme which would in time deliver access to state-backed indemnity for all NHS doctors in England – reflecting the changing nature of primary care - will be welcome news to many GPs.’

Kayll said the MPS would continue to provide cover for GPs at inquiries, inquests, disciplinary proceedings and for non-NHS activity.

The DoH will set up a stakeholder group and arrange a first roundtable next month with doctors’ representatives to gather views on how best to take the scheme forward.