A report from the Healthwatch charity has called for a formal review by NHS England of access to GP services during the pandemic - warning that the rapid shift away from face-to-face consultations had left some patients 'struggling to access care'.
GP surgeries have been instructed by NHS England to adopt 'total triage' - as well as video, online and telephone consultation wherever appropriate during the COVID-19 pandemic to limit infection risk.
The Healthwatch report said experiences of GP care had 'continued to be positive' for many patients - but highlighted problems for some around booking appointments, contacting GPs and obtaining medication during the pandemic.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said criticism of GP practices' response to the pandemic was ‘unfair’ and ‘did not reflect the reality’ of what had been achieved. He said that increased demand through the pandemic had piled additional pressure on practices that were already understaffed and underfunded - and often working with outdated IT systems.
He said it was ‘important to dispel the myth’ that patients without access to the internet had been abandoned - pointing out that the 'vast majority' of initial contacts with patients are by telephone, and stressing that GPs have continued to see patients face-to-face when necessary throughout the pandemic.
The Healthwatch report said: ‘For some people the rapid digitalisation of care has worked… On the other side of the coin, it is clear many people are now struggling to access care from their GP, often simply because they do not know how.
‘This puts people’s health and wellbeing at risk and increases demand on overstretched hospitals – both from those who cannot get a GP appointment so seek care at A&E, and from people who now need more advanced care and treatment because they were unable to get help sooner.’
Pressure on GPs
Dr Richard Vautrey said GPs had been working ‘incredibly hard’ to continue to provide patient care during the pandemic.
He said: ‘We’re acutely aware that remote appointments don’t work for everyone, as this report highlights, but it’s important to dispel the myth that patients without access to the internet have in some way been abandoned and simply cannot access their GP.
'The vast majority of initial contacts are through telephone consultations, and indeed the speed and convenience of access to services has improved for many as a result. Practices will always see patients face-to-face when it's clinically necessary, either in the surgery or at their home, and we look forward to the time when it is safe to do this more often as it is something that GPs also miss.
‘This constant changing of operation – down to a lack of preparedness from the government – has put enormous pressures on practices and inevitably had an effect on the booking systems, especially as demand is now greater than before the pandemic.’
The GPC chair said there were not enough GPs and practice nurses before the pandemic and that the current situation had put ‘greater pressure’ on the remaining workforce.
‘Waiting times throughout the NHS have been a struggle during the pandemic,' he said. 'This is indicative of a much wider issue that has plagued the entire health service for decades, and something that is responsible for the majority of the points raised in this report – a chronic lack of resources and funding.
‘This must be considered when we assess the performance of general practice throughout the pandemic. In fact, considering teams have had to work with outdated IT systems, too few staff, and decades of underfunding, it’s testament to our staff how much they’ve done during this crisis.'
Dr Vautrey insisted the government and NHS leadership must learn from the pandemic to ensure that GPs ‘are never left again without the resources and funding they need.’
NHS England announced this week an extra £120m in COVID-19 support funding for general practice between now and September.