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NHS England angers GPs after apparent U-turn over face-to-face appointment advice

GPs have continued to work during the pandemic, with 39 per cent of appointments being face-to-face

Isobel Frodsham
Monday 14 September 2020 17:33 BST
Dr Steve Kell said he has continued to see patients during the pandemic
Dr Steve Kell said he has continued to see patients during the pandemic (Steve Kell)

GPs have been left feeling "demoralised" and "undervalued" after a letter sent to surgeries across England reminded doctors to give face-to-face appointments to vulnerable patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

In an apparent U-turn, a letter from NHS England was sent to practices saying it was "important" the public was aware they could still access in-person consultations with their doctor.

In July, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told surgeries all GP consultations must be held over the phone or virtually unless there was a “compelling" clinical reason for in-person appointments.

But GP practices have now been told they need to communicate clearly with patients that such consultations are still on offer.

According to NHS data, around 50 per cent of appointments at GP surgeries in July in England were carried out face-to-face, with 39 per cent of those being with a GP.

But GPs have said the letter has failed to recognise the work they have been doing and left them feeling "like it was the final straw".

Dr Steve Kell, GP Partner at Larwood Health Partnership in Worksop, East Midlands, said his surgery had not received the letter from NHS England yet and found out about it through media reports.

He told The Independent: "Most GPs are dreading their already increasing workloads going up while the number of GPs go down. We can’t get tests, people are off sick and we’re preparing for the biggest flu campaign ever.

"[When seeing the news] I just felt completely undervalued and demotivated. I’m in a vulnerable group, I’m seeing patients every day wearing PPE. 

"GPs have died during this pandemic sadly and we need to have support and be challenged if GPs aren’t seeing people face to face, but that’s a small minority.

"This sort of approach is really the wrong approach with a profession that is tired and concerned about the next wave."

Dr Susie Bayley, medical director at the General Practice Taskforce in Derbyshire, said she has continued to see patients in person every day throughout the pandemic.

Dr Susie Bayley said she felt "demoralised" NHS England 'had not recognised the work of the GPs' (Susie Bayley)

"It felt really demoralising that we were being told we hadn’t seen patients throughout and there was almost an implied threat in terms of it mentioning complaints that felt incredibly unfair," she told The Independent.

The NHS letter reminds practices that they face enforcement action if they fail to offer clinically-indicated in-person appointments to patients, as it is considered a breach of their medical contract.

"Local commissioners will investigate any complaint from a patient that they are being refused face-to-face consultations when there is an identified need," it reads.

“I just feel really angry and upset on behalf of all of my colleagues who are working within general practice," Dr Bayley added. "There should’ve been an acknowledgement that we have been seeing patients throughout and supporting the whole of the NHS."

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, described it as an “insult” to suggest GPs had not been doing their jobs properly.

He said: "General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. GPs have been delivering a predominantly remote service in order to comply with official guidance and help stop the spread of Covid-19."

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, added: "Any inference that in-person consultations were put on hold is an affront to the committed GPs who have continued to go to work throughout the pandemic."

An NHS England spokesperson said: “Most practices have made huge efforts to remain accessible through the pandemic, patients at some practices have reported difficulties, so as well the ease of video and phone consultations, as the RCGP themselves have stated it’s important that face to face appointments continue to be offered."

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