Frontline GPs warned that staff absences are a major challenge for practice teams, with some fearing they may have to close surgeries temporarily because of workforce shortages.
BMA GP committee chair for England Dr Farah Jameel told GPonline that the government’s failure to secure a steady flow of tests for surgery staff was ‘further depleting’ the workforce, with many staying off work for longer than needed. She added that a lack of appropriate PPE was putting staff at increased risk of infection.
GPs also demanded further steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 infection - as prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed the government's intention to stick to existing 'plan B' measures despite average daily COVID-19 cases over the past week surging to a record 181,411 and the NHS moving to a 'war footing'.
Dr Jameel said limited access to lateral flow tests (LFTs) and priority PCR testing were making it an ‘even more difficult task’ to deliver booster vaccines while maintaining routine care. NHS England admitted last week that it had heard from 'all primary care contractor groups that access to COVID-19 testing, both LFT and PCR, is still proving challenging'.
Dr Jameel has repeated calls from the BMA for LFT and PCR testing to be prioritised for key workers including NHS staff while supply issues remain - and for higher-grade PPE to be provided for practices. Her demands came after BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul warned doctors were struggling to access COVID-19 tests and that this had left NHS staff uncertain about when they could return to work safely.
Official figures published on 31 December show that 24,632 staff were absent through COVID-19 sickness or self-isolation at acute NHS hospital trusts in England on Boxing Day. The total does not include absences in GP practices, however, and GPonline reported last year on BMA estimates suggesting up to 16,000 staff in primary care could be off work with COVID-19 by Christmas.
GPs have raised concerns that practices are struggling to keep services running as staff continue to fall sick or isolate. Nottingham GP Dr Shan Hussain said his practice was having ‘serious issues’ with staffing. He warned they ‘won’t be able to continue’ if one more doctor becomes unavailable.
Watford GP Dr Simon Hodes said his practice team were experiencing similar difficulties and feeling stretched. 'Although the Omicron variant may be less severe, it's certainly more common which is causing a strain on the system everywhere within the NHS including testing ability.'
A GP in north-west England tweeted: 'It is important to slow the infection rate of Omicron. It is spreading too quickly. I work in a busy inner-city GP practice [and] today we had three members of staff who tested positive over the New Year period. My nursing team is reduced by 50%.’
I’ve a GP friend now having to isolate due to Covid, the last of 2 left standing in their practice. Their staff are shredded due to Covid. That leaves one GP to manage 13,000 patients. This is what allowing uncontrolled infection to run rife does. Unsafe for patients and staff.— Dr AW (@awoodall19) December 30, 2021
Dr Jameel told GPonline predictions about high staff absence rates were becoming a ‘worrying reality’. She said ‘even a few’ absences could drastically affect a practice’s ability to continue caring for patients - and asked for more support.
‘We know that absences have had and continue to have a real impact on practices, staff and patients. This is made worse by the ongoing problems with access to LFTs and priority PCR testing, as some staff who would be able to return to work are being prevented from doing so.
‘Practice teams are doing their level best to safely meet the needs of their patients, including their continued commitment to the booster and vaccination campaign – however with a workforce even further depleted this is becoming an even more difficult task.
‘Protecting staff with the provision of improved PPE, ensuring they have priority access to testing, and reducing transmission in the community are imperative right now if we are to continue being able to care for our sickest and most vulnerable patients.’
NHS England has asked practices to keep their CCG informed of any issues which could impact on patient services amid feedback that staff were struggling to access COVID-19 testing. It encouraged practices to work with commissioners to resolve issues and said a ‘significant contingency supply’ of LFTs was available.
Prime minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press conference this week that he would recommend to his cabinet that the government stick to 'plan B' measures despite intense pressure on the health service.
He admitted that parts of the NHS were now overwhelmed, amid reports of multiple hospitals and care homes reporting critical problems with staff shortages. The weeks ahead 'are going to be challenging', he said - but he argued that with a vaccination campaign that has delivered more than 34m booster jabs, the UK had 'a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country once again'.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said last week that the government was aiming to triple the supply of LFTs to 300m per month by February.
Last month GPonline reported that practices were forced to reduce their services unexpectedly or temporarily close following COVID-19 outbreaks within their teams. The BMA has previously warned rising COVID-19 infections threaten to derail the booster campaign.