NHS England updated its standard operating procedure guidance for primary care this week to recommend that all staff in shielding groups or from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) groups are risk-assessed before carrying out face-to-face consultations.
Practices in England have been warned since April by the BMA and organisations including NHS Employers about the need to begin risk-assessing staff at greater risk from coronavirus.
GP leaders have warned, however, that this advice must be backed by funding to enable practices to act on the results of risk assessments and protect staff.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline: ‘Doing a risk assessment is just one step in the process. There is no point doing it if you are not then able to act on it.
‘In a practice where you may have a number of people who are assessed to be at high risk, that practice will have additional costs or will have to take on a locum to cover that particular area of work.’
‘Practices need funding to support the outcome of any risk assessment as well as a whole range of issues relating to COVID-19… I think we need to be supporting our colleagues as much as possible and recognising the real challenges that many have when they have clearly got higher risks than others.'
The Leeds GP said financial support would be crucial to ensuring that practices could maintain their usual services and keep staff safe as more patients return to surgeries following the initial stages of the pandemic.
GP workload rising
Over half of GP partners told a recent GPonline poll that they had seen a ‘significant’ increase in the number of patients contacting their surgery in the past two weeks. Almost a quarter said they had seen a significant increase in the number of patients attending the surgery.
Dr Vautrey said funding had to be provided to allow practices to maintain services. He said: ‘It’s failing practices and patients. Practices want to be delivering a safe service that protects their staff and their patients. And we need to ensure that we provide the necessary support that practices will need to maintain their services to their patients.’
The Leeds GP recently criticised the government for failing to provide practices with practical guidance on how to protect staff following the publication of Public Health England’s COVID-19 disparities report. It found that COVID-19 death rates are highest among patients from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) groups, while age was the most significant factor.
‘There is still much more action that the government and NHS England need to take and not just provide risk assessments, but also for general practice providing occupational health services, so we can get extra help to those practices who need it,’ he added.
NHS England has said that practices will be able to claim funding to cover the cost of additional staffing required during the pandemic and to cover staff absences due to COVID-19.
Details of this funding have yet to be released, however, with the DHSC only able to confirm that more information will come in due course.