In a letter to NHS organisations on Wednesday, NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said that although coronavirus would 'be with us for some time' the NHS could now move into phase two of its response having passed the peak of the outbreak.
The NHS chief executive said: 'Over the next six weeks and beyond we have the opportunity to begin to release and redeploy some of the treatment capacity that could have been needed while the number of COVID-19 patients was rising so sharply.'
Plans to restore GP access to diagnostic testing and normal service on urgent cancer referrals come after GP leaders warned that some patients referred for urgent cancer tests at the start of the pandemic are still waiting to be offered an appointment more than a month later.
Care home support
The letter says part of the Enhanced Care in Care Homes specification of the primary care network (PCN) DES has been brought forward to support care homes. Practices and community NHS teams should work together to provide the support - including a 'virtual weekly care home round of residents needing clinical support'.
Plans to bring forward part of the care home support scheme come just days after GP leaders called plans to press ahead with rolling out some PCN specifications during the COVID-19 pandemic 'astonishing'.
Practices have also been told to 'stratify and proactively contact their high-risk patients with ongoing care needs, to ensure appropriate ongoing care and support plans are delivered through multidisciplinary teams' to mitigate the impact of a reduction in face-to-face patient contacts.
Patients who are shielding should be proactively contacted to 'ensure they know how to access care, are receiving their medications', and practices should provide home visiting where clinically necessary, the letter says.
The NHS is now calling on all local systems and organisations 'fully to step up non-COVID-19 urgent services as soon as possible over the next six weeks' and to decide in the coming 10 days whether to restore 'at least some routine non-urgent elective care'.
The letter repeats advice for GPs to 'make two-week wait cancer, urgent and routine referrals to secondary care as normal' - and warns hospitals that in addition to restoring urgent and non-urgent procedures, 'referrals, diagnostics (including direct access diagnostics available to GPs) and treatment must be brought back to pre-pandemic levels at the earliest opportunity to minimise potential harm, and to reduce the scale of the postpandemic surge in demand'.
Sir Simon also warns NHS organisations that the health service must take the opportunity to 'lock in' beneficial advances made during the pandemic - such as remote working and increased capacity for video consultations.
He warns that community healthcare including GP practices will see increasing demand for 'COVID-19 aftercare' as patients are released from hospital. The NHS chief executive also hailed health service staff for their 'unparalleled commitment' in delivering the 'remarkable NHS response to the greatest global health emergency in our history'.