National guidance published by NHS England last week says GP surgeries can consider pausing routine clinical work to focus on the rollout of the expanded COVID-19 booster campaign - with the government aiming to offer all eligible UK adults a third jab by the end of December.
However, some practices have had to take urgent steps to cope with staff shortages triggered by COVID-19 infection - closing triage systems earlier than planned or closing sites temporarily - with one practice reporting half of its reception staff were off work.
It comes as GPonline reported earlier this week that general practice could lose almost 16,000 staff to COVID-19 by 25 December in a worst-case scenario, with the BMA urging the government to implement tougher restrictions.
Limited GP services
Staff at St James Family Doctors in Quedgeley, Gloucester, notified patients that the practice would be closed on 24 December ‘due to significant staff shortages as a direct result of COVID-19’. It said full access to clinical services was available by telephone but in-person appointments would take place at its partner surgery.
West Quay Medical Centre in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales, told patients it would be running an urgent and emergency appointment telephone triage system only over the festive season amid COVID-19 absences and staff awaiting PCR test results.
Staff wrote on the website:’ Please be aware our clinical and non-clinical teams are working as hard as possible to provide services to patients amidst sickness/COVID, isolation, waiting for PCR results before returning back to work and we are now seeing increased demand due to winter pressures and the increases due to COVID/Omicron variant.
‘We appreciate continued patient support and rest assured we are doing everything practically possible to provide the best service possible within available resources.’
A number of staff self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms also forced Lanarkshire practice the Bruce Medical Practice to reduce its services earlier this month. The surgery said it had taken the action as a ‘safety precaution’ for both patients and staff.
Dr Sian Campbell told Lanarkshire Live: ‘Unfortunately, we had to cancel some appointments. We also closed the practice to carry out a deep clean of the building. All practice staff have been advised to self-isolate and are waiting on their test results. Plans are underway to ensure patient services will be back to normal as soon as possible.’
Another surgery in Carluke, central Scotland told patients it was bringing forward a planned date for closing triage from 1pm over the Christmas period because of a shortage of GP staff due to COVID-19 isolation.
Newbyres Medical Group in Gorebridge also apologised for potential longer waiting times due to staff absence. It said: ‘Please be aware we are currently experiencing staffing shortages in our admin team due to COVID-19. Almost 50% of our morning reception team are off either with COVID-19 or required to isolate due to COVID-19. We are doing the best we can with the staff we have available and the staff that can are doing overtime.’
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul warned earlier this week that waiting times for GPs would increase further unless the government stepped in to control the spread of COVID, exacerbated by the Omicron variant.
He said: ‘Amid the surging case-rate, driven by the hugely transmissible Omicron variant, doctors are not only incredibly worried about the potential impact this could have on hospitalisations, but also about what it would mean for patient care across the NHS if we have vast swathes of staff off sick with the virus.
‘We’re already seeing services being affected by staff absences, and these estimates show it could get far, far worse. Without enough staff, appointments and treatments will need to be cancelled or postponed, and waits for care in both GP surgeries and hospitals will rise even further, compromising the level of care remaining staff can offer. This is not to mention the impact it could have on the NHS’s capacity to deliver the Booster programme itself.
‘If our estimates of staff absence are realised – which we honestly hope they are not – this would be truly devastating, leading to an inability to provide even some of the most urgent services.’