Government urged to 'free up' GP practices and expand steps to control Omicron

GPs have called for immediate action such as suspension of QOF to allow practices to step up the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and for wider measures to limit the spread of Omicron, amid growing concern over its potential impact on health services.

Omicron warning (Photo: Thomas Faull/Getty Images)

The BMA has warned that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 'has the potential to have a devastating impact on the health service' - and urged the government to step up action now to prevent 'even more unnecessary deaths'.

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced on 27 November that face coverings would become mandatory in shops and on public transport from Tuesday 30 November.

People who have been in close contact with an Omicron case will need to self-isolate for 10 days even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while those returning to the UK from abroad take a PCR test - and self-isolate until they receive a negative result. Officials have said healthcare workers who return from 'any travel overseas' should not return to work until they have had an initial negative PCR test, and take lateral flow tests daily 'until day 10 after return'.

Omicron variant

However, the BMA has urged the government to go further with infection control measures by implementing compulsory mask wearing in all indoor public places and closed settings - warning the government must use the ‘small window of opportunity’ to limit the impact of the new variant.

BMA GP chair Dr Farah Jameel has written to NHS England about measures to free up GP practices amid concerns over the impact of the new variant.

Dr Jameel confirmed on Twitter that she had written to NHS leaders about the threat posed by the Omicron variant to GP services, arguing that ‘time sensitive decisions’ had to be taken to protect surgeries already in crisis. Her predecessor Dr Richard Vautrey called for health leaders to support practices by suspending ‘QOF micromanagement’ to allow them to focus on patient care.

COVID-19 cases

Pressure on the government to act rapidly comes as one Surrey GP warned of an ‘explosion’ of positive COVID-19 tests in recent days - after the UK reported more than 50,000 positive tests in a day for the first time since late October.

Nine cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in the UK - six in Scotland and three in England (Essex, London, Nottingham). An announcement around the expansion of the COVID-19 booster scheme is expected shortly.

BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagapul said the reintroduction of mandatory mask wearing was ‘the right thing to do’, but urged the government to go further. He said: ‘In order for this measure to be fully effective it is important that the government extends this mandate to all public indoor and closed settings.

‘This includes the hospitality industry – such as for staff in restaurants and beauty salons - where the public tend to spend long periods of time in close contact with others. This addition to government measures will have minimal economic and social impact, but rather evidence tells us that it will help to further reduce the spread of the virus.'

Impact on practices

He added: ‘We only have a small window of opportunity to get this right to ensure that we don’t lose control of this new variant, which has the potential to have a devastating impact on the health service. The government must act now, or we risk seeing even more unnecessary deaths.’

Surrey Hills GP Dr Dave Triska questioned whether the Omicron variant was endemic already, with his surgery seeing an explosion of COVID positive cases over the previous weekend.

There is particular concern around the potential of the Omicron variant, with the World Health Organisation saying that its ‘unprecedented number of spike mutations’ presented a ‘very high risk’ to countries around the world. The government has also said that vaccines could be less effective against it.

Health secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News that the government was ‘nowhere near’ imposing mandatory social distancing and home working despite the discovery of the omicron variant in the UK. But Dr Jameel warned last week that practice teams were exhausted and ‘ready to break’ - insisting the government needed to take immediate steps to reverse the current GP crisis.

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