Speaking at this year’s RCGP annual conference in Liverpool, Professor Chris Whitty said he was ‘massively admiring’ of the work carried out by GPs during the pandemic, including the success of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
Professor Whitty said general practice needed to have a discussion with patients over the coming months to decide on the right level of face-to-face consultations, adding that the debate had ‘got rather more heat than it needs’.
He warned that the NHS was in for an ‘exceptionally difficult’ winter this year - whether or not COVID-19 cases continue to rise - and that general practice would be at the forefront of managing this.
GPs' pandemic role
It comes as GP leaders were left ‘dismayed’ by a government support package to help general practice through the winter, which they say ‘offers very little’ to help remedy the problems within the profession.
The chief medical officer, who made an eight-hour round trip to attend the conference, said: ‘There's a reason I came here, and that was because I'm massively admiring of what all of you have done and continue to do in the biggest public health challenge in our professional careers.
‘It really has been very difficult, it's going to continue to be difficult - I don't need to sugarcoat that at all - but the way in which general practice has risen to the challenge of providing not only COVID care, but getting us out of the problem with the vaccination, and at the same time keeping everything else going, has been absolutely outstanding.'
He added: ‘It's been really pretty miserable for a lot of people, and for some people very dangerous, and we should very much appreciate that. We are definitely not out of the woods yet, but where we would have been if general practice had not done what it is, is catastrophically worse, so just a huge thank you again to all of you for what has been a remarkable two years, and a very difficult time.’
Responding to questions from RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall about the balance between face-to-face and in-person consultations, Professor Whitty said the profession had not yet reached the ‘optimal point’ where the average person was happy with the system.
He argued the NHS should have shifted faster to remote consultations before the pandemic, but said: ‘COVID has inevitably forced us to go [into a] sort of painful gear change where we're probably too far the other way [towards remote consulting]. But it was the right thing to do… and we’re a lot better at doing it now.
‘Now, the pendulum is already swinging back… [but] we, as a profession, have got to have a debate with the public and work out what is the right [balance]. But also recognising that what we're trying to do is to use the resources we have got in the best way we can. And also recognising that for many patients, a telemedicine solution is a better solution.’
Looking ahead to this winter, the chief medical officer said: ‘Well I think the winter as a whole, I regret to say, is going to be exceptionally difficult for the NHS and general practice is going to be absolutely at the forefront of this, unfortunately. That is irrespective of whether we have a relatively low, but non trivial amount of COVID, or whether we actually have a further surge in the winter.’
Professor Marshall also praised Professor Whitty for his leadership through the pandemic - and the chief medical officer won a standing ovation from conference delegates.