In a letter to health minister Jo Churchill the NHS Confederation’s PCN network argued that a ‘more considered and respectful approach’ from the government and NHS England around sharing primary care plans was needed to allow teams to prepare adequately.
The warning comes after the government gave GPs ‘very short notice’ and ‘little detail’ about announcements that flu vaccinations would be expanded to 50- to 64-year-olds from 1 December.
It also follows widespread anger among GPs over an NHS England letter warning practices that they could be in breach of contract if they failed to offer face-to-face appointments when appropriate during the pandemic was briefed to the press before it was sent to GPs - and after shielding advice was changed without warning.
The PCN network said it was ‘unacceptable’ that national media appeared to be given priority over announcements about this year’s flu campaign - and argue that the government must show a ‘greater appreciation’ of the ‘monumental pressures’ facing GP teams.
Practice phones jammed
GPonline reported last week that practice phones were ‘jammed’ after they received a deluge of calls from patients following confirmation that this year’s flu campaign had been expanded.
GPs were caught unaware, pointing out that an NHS England update letter arrived hours after they had heard the announcement 'on national TV'.
PCN network leaders argued that government communications should be more transparent, with practices notifed of plans in good time. It said: ‘Primary care services remain committed to delivering the flu vaccination programme and have been working hard to accommodate this very significant activity… [but] the fact that briefing the media appears to have been prioritised over giving prior warning to the primary care sector is unacceptable.
‘Anxiety from the public has understandably been heightened during the pandemic and it appears that little thought was given by the [government] to support general practices to be in a confident position to provide this clarity and reassurance to their communities.
‘To continue to do their jobs effectively, [GPs and their teams] need greater appreciation from the government of the monumental pressures that their workforce is under and for a more considered and respectful approach to be adopted regarding how announcements affecting them and their patients are released publicly.’
The PCN network also said it continued to wait for guidance around how practices could run parallel flu programmes, with plans around a COVID-19 jab ramping up in recent days.
GP leaders in Cambridgeshire also voiced their frustrations at government communications - highlighting that some practices would not be able to get extra vaccines until December. ‘One might hope and indeed, expect that in the present circumstances the DHSC and PHE would liaise closely with NHS England, and indeed the profession, but perhaps that is too much to ask,' they said.
‘Signpost any patients who complain to their MP, and advise them to feedback how seven working days’ notice is woefully inadequate for an already overworked and exhausted GP practice workforce to put these arrangements in place,' they added.
The decision to invite patients aged 50-64 for flu vaccination from 1 December adds a further 11.5m patients to the eligible cohort just as practices are preparing to roll out the COVID-19 vaccination programme, raising huge questions over GP workload.