General practice 'forgotten soldier' as Omicron drives rising pressure on NHS

General practice is the 'forgotten soldier yet again' amid growing pressure on the NHS as Omicron drives a major slowdown in provision of non-urgent care, BMA leaders have warned.

Dr Farah Jameel
BMA GP committee chair Dr Farah Jameel (Photo: BMA)

Two thirds of doctors say delays to elective or non-urgent medical care, investigations, procedures and treatments have increased since the emergence of the Omicron variant, according to a snapshot BMA poll carried out last week.

One in five of almost 6,000 doctors who responded said they had personally had to isolate due to COVID-19 in the past two weeks. A total of 69% said staff absences in their place of work had impacted patient care - with around half of these saying the effect was significant.

GPs have reported that the general practice workforce has been 'shredded' by absences related to COVID-19 - at a time when demand for appointments is at record levels and while the profession has been tasked with delivering the bulk of vaccinations in the accelerated COVID-19 booster campaign.

Omicron spread

A further slow-down in hospital services triggered by Omicron comes at a time when the NHS waiting list is already at a record level, with close to 6m patients awaiting care - including more than 300,000 waiting for more than a year.

The National Audit Office warned last year that the rise in long waits for hospital care has added to pressure on general practice, as GPs face repeated appointments with patients unable to access treatment or surgery in secondary care.

BMA leaders have repeated calls for the government to step up measures to slow the spread of Omicron - with polling showing that a majority of doctors back measures including increased requirements for wearing of face coverings, limits on large events and a return to social distancing in hospitality.

But BMA GP committee for England chair Dr Farah Jameel warned last week that as pressure builds on the health service, general practice risks being left as the 'forgotten soldier yet again' - pointing to a speech from prime minister Boris Johnson that highlighted rising hospital admissions but not the impact that the rapid spread of Omicron is having on general practice.

GP services

In an update sent to GPs, Dr Jameel warned: 'With over a million consultations a day, circa 7m prescriptions a week - in addition to everything else that we do - if general practice was to fall over, a rough estimate tells us that at the very least 14m patients would lose access to care in just one week.

'This is the impact that will ripple across the healthcare system and the sheer scale of care that you in general practice provide.'

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said Omicron was 'battering our health service, forcing staff off sick, resulting in untold suffering for patients'.

He repeated calls for better protection for staff with improved access to PPE - after the BMA's GP leaders called on the government to provide 'FFP2 masks as a default for all practices'.

Dr Nagpaul added: 'We currently have a record-breaking waiting list stretching to almost 6m; these are real people in distress, 312,000 of whom have been already waiting more than 12 months. As doctors, it is our job to provide the care they need and it’s incredibly distressing when we can’t do that, with the risk that many patients’ health will deteriorate as they wait.

'We need a thorough plan from government for how to tackle the backlog with funding to match. Ultimately it is clear that the rate of infection must be brought down to reduce staff absence and the devastating impact of Covid on the health service.

'With GPs struggling with staff absences and some two dozen hospital trusts now declaring critical incidents, the army being deployed to support hospitals, and some ambulance trusts asking patients to make their own way to hospital, the government must now act decisively to control the spread and impact of Omicron on our health service.'

The government has not ruled out further restrictions, but Mr Johnson said on 4 January that the UK had a chance to 'ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again' - pointing to the booster campaign and signs that 'Omicron is milder than previous variants'.

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