Government denies plan to make GPs 'gatekeepers' of COVID-19 testing

The government has denied plans to make GPs 'gatekeepers' of the struggling COVID-19 testing system after doctors' leaders warned the move could overwhelm practices.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

On 15 September ITV News reported that the government was considering asking GPs to act as gatekeepers to the testing system - meaning those wanting a test could only get one if their family doctor deemed it necessary.

The report said health secretary Matt Hancock was ‘very reluctant’ to make this decision, but may have ‘no alternative’ as the much-criticised testing regime struggled to cope with demand.

GP leaders warned the move could 'overwhelm' practices - and the government has now confirmed to GPonline it has no plans to make GPs responsible for authorisation of testing.

COVID-19 testing

However, speaking in the House of Commons this week, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock suggested that developments in technology could in future allow GPs and pharmacists to carry out on-the-spot COVID-19 tests that could determine immediately whether patients were infected.

Prime minister Boris Johnson admitted this week that the COVID-19 testing system currently ‘has huge problems’, while Mr Hancock confirmed the shortfall in capacity would take ‘weeks’ to resolve.

GPonline has reported GPs and hospital doctors - as well as patients - have been unable to access tests, forcing many to stay off work at a time when NHS services are under intense pressure.

Despite the shortage of tests, confirmed COVID-19 cases have now risen to levels last seen in early May.

GP gatekeepers

Suggestions that GPs could be made gatekeepers of the struggling testing system prompted warnings from the BMA that practices simply do not have the spare capacity to take on the role.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'These suggestions would not solve the problems we have seen with the current testing system, and would not be acceptable or practical for GP practices. They would serve only to overwhelm practices that are already struggling to cope with unsustainable workloads as we move into the busiest flu season ever.

'Instead, the focus should be on expanding laboratory capacity, so that tests can be processed quickly and in higher volumes, and providing more support to public health teams – which are best placed to inform effective local responses to rises in infection rates.'

Senior clinical adviser at the NHS Confederation Dr Graham Jackson also rejected the idea. He said: ‘The idea of GPs being gatekeepers to tests for COVID-19 would completely overwhelm general practice and would mean primary care would grind to a halt. This is not a good use of general practice resources at a time when they need to focus on patients who need to access them.'

Rapid testing

Mr Hancock said this week that the government was ‘optimistic’ about new technology that could allow people to be tested at GP surgeries - giving immediate results.

When asked whether practices could be part of the solution for ‘front-door testing’ by former primary care minister Steve Brine, Mr Hancock said: ‘We want technologies that can be in a pharmacy or a GP service, so that people get the test result back straight away.

‘When such technologies come on stream - I am optimistic about this, as I am about a lot of things; I do not think I could do this job at the moment without being optimistic - that will give us a chance to get testing out into the community at every level.’

The test and trace business plan states that the government hopes to reach a capacity of 500,000 COVID-19 tests a day by October. On 15 September, a total of 221,192 tests were processed.

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