GPs condemn call to 'embrace risk' as Javid claims face-to-face access will improve after 19 July

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid has claimed relaxing COVID-19 rules from 19 July will bring 'better' access to face-to-face GP appointments - as GP leaders condemned calls to 'embrace more risk'.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey (Photo: BMA)
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey (Photo: BMA)

Speaking in the House of Commons on 13 July, Conservative MP James Sunderland said he welcomed the government's annoucement that plans to relax COVID-19 rules from 19 July would go ahead.

Addressing Mr Javid, the MP added: 'Does the secretary of state agree that his department should embrace a bit more risk by working with the Department for Transport to fully open up the international travel sector and also to ensure that GPs do return to fully physical appointments and that we also open up the full range of dental services.'

After commenting on plans to open up travel, Mr Javid said: 'In terms of GP access now that we have started to open up I think that working together with GPs we can see better direct access, especially face-to-face access.'

Face-to-face GP access

Calls to 'embrace more risk' were swiftly condemned by the BMA's GP committee - with its chair Dr Richard Vautrey warning it was 'completely inappropriate and dangerous' to suggest that practices or hospitals should put staff or patients at unnecessary additional risk of harm.

The comments come at a time when talks between the BMA's GP committee and NHS England have been suspended for two months after GP leaders criticised a 'tone deaf' demand from health service officials for practices to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients who wanted them.

Doctors' leaders have said the demand was pandering to a false narrative in parts of the media that general practice had been 'closed' during the pandemic - despite official figures showing that practices delivered 164m face-to-face patient appointments between March 2020 and March 2021. Practices also delivered tens of millions more appointments remotely and tens of millions of in-person contacts as part of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

The call to 'embrace more risk' also comes as nearly 240,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the week to 13 July and more than 3,200 patients were admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in the week to 7 July - the most recent figures available.

COVID-19 rules relaxed

Doctors' leaders have called the decision to go ahead with relaxing pandemic restrictions at a time when cases and hospitalisations are increasing rapidly 'irresponsible and perilous'.

Reacting to the comments from Mr Javid and Mr Sunderland, BMA GP committee chair Dr Vautrey told GPonline: 'GPs are experts at assessing and managing risk, something they do every day and in every patient consultation. It’s something we have done throughout the pandemic and it's why the large number of patients who have attended GPs surgeries when it was necessary for them to do so have done it in as safe a way as possible.

'It is though completely inappropriate – and dangerous – to imply that by "embracing risk", GP surgeries, or indeed hospitals, should actively put our patients or workforce at greater risk of harm. With rapidly rising cases of COVID-19 important measures, including risk-management, that are there to keep some of our most vulnerable patients, as well as staff, safe from a deadly disease must be maintained.

'Despite the government’s irresponsible decision to remove all restrictions from next Monday, official guidance remains that healthcare settings should ‘maintain appropriate infection prevention and control processes as necessary’. This should of course include the continued wearing of face coverings by staff, patients and visitors, as well as physical distancing.

Pandemic

'It’s essential that this is communicated clearly and widely so that everyone understands what to expect when entering surgeries, hospitals and other health and care premises, and why these measures are necessary to protect us all and to effectively get on top of this pandemic.'

General practice has faced persistent pressure over face-to-face appointments through the pandemic after following NHS England advice to shift to predominantly remote consultations to protect patients and staff.

NHS England's primary care medical director was forced to apologise last year and faced calls to resign this year over comments on face-to-face appointments.

The chief executive of the Boots pharmacy chain has also been forced to apologise for claiming GP practices 'disappeared' during the pandemic - despite the fact they delivered the bulk of COVID-19 jabs as part of the UK's largest ever vaccination campaign and huge numbers of appointments both in-person and remotely.

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