GPs demand priority COVID-19 testing to secure workforce in second wave

GPs should be among NHS staff prioritised for COVID-19 tests, the RCGP has warned - with hundreds of doctors off work as the government's testing system struggles to cope with a rise in demand.

COVID-19 swab test (Photo: Paul Biris/Getty Images)
COVID-19 swab test (Photo: Paul Biris/Getty Images)

The RCGP has demanded that GPs should be among the first in line for tests, warning that their capacity to provide care is ‘dependent on our ability to access tests when we need them.’

Pressure group Doctors Association UK (DAUK) has warned that the government has not learned lessons from the first wave of the pandemic - insisting that the NHS ‘can’t afford for a single doctor to be self-isolating’ due to a lack of tests. A snapshot DAUK survey found that ‘hundreds of doctors’ are off work because they can’t get tested - with over three-quarters of doctors who needed a test saying they had been unable to access one.

However, the BMA has warned that with the UK many months into the pandemic, there should be enough tests for everyone who needs one - patients and NHS staff alike - and that it should not be a case of 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'.

The calls come as health secretary Matt Hancock admitted testing problems could take 'weeks' to resolve - and said he would ‘not shirk from decisions’ about who should be prioritised.

COVID tests

GPonline has reported that GPs and hospitals doctors - as well as patients - have been unable to access tests and offered tests far from home, amid a rise in COVID-19 cases to levels last seen in May.

NHS Providers, which represents trusts, warned that 'clear capacity problems' had left NHS staff across the country unable to work. It highlighted particular problems in Bristol, Leeds and London.

One GP responding to the DAUK poll said: ‘Finally got one through local hospital staff testing but due to resources being stretched can only test one child so I just had to pick the child which was worse.'

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall told BBC Newsnight that GPs and other NHS workers should be prioritised for testing, warning that staff shortages caused by doctors having to isolate are undermining care.

Priority testing

He added that testing was vital for GPs to be able to differentiate patients with COVID-19 from those with other serious illnesses.

Professor Marshall said: 'We see many patients in general practice who may have a fever, viral respiratory tract symptoms, a headache - all of these symptoms could be COVID but they could be other serious conditions, like for example acute kidney infection, septicaemia or meningitis.

'Our ability to differentiate between COVID and those other conditions is really dependent on our ability to access tests when we need them.'

Professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia Paul Hunter told the programme it was a 'no brainer' for GPs to be prioritised for testing. He said: 'If GPs can't work, people tend to go into hospital, into emergency departments and then the risk of further spread of COVID-19 is much greater.' 

NHS staff

In the House of Commons on 15 September, Matt Hancock suggested that NHS staff and care workers could be prioritised for testing, adding the government would publish an update on prioritisation.

He said: ‘Throughout this pandemic, we have prioritised testing according to need. Over the summer, when demand was low, we were able to meet all requirements for testing, whether priorities or not.

‘But as demand has risen, so we are having to prioritise once again and I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation. They are not always comfortable, but they are important.

‘The top priority is and always has been acute clinical care. The next priority is social care, where we're now sending over 100,000 tests a day because we've all seen the risks this virus poses in care homes.’

Mr Hancock admitted during the same debate that it could be ‘a matter of weeks’ before problems with testing capacity were sorted.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'It is absolutely essential that all healthcare workers have access to reliable COVID-19 tests, but there are clearly serious flaws in the government’s current system that urgently need addressing.

'We’ve heard many incidents from doctors who say they are unable to go to work because of issues with testing and not knowing whether they are safe to be in their surgery or clinical workplace, and the longer this fiasco goes on, the longer patients will have to wait for the care and treatment they need. This is absolutely crucial at a time when we are embarking on the biggest ever flu campaign.

'The government has also promised efficient testing for the public, but it should not be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. We should be at a stage now where anyone, whether they are working in healthcare or not, has access to a test if they need one.'

The NHS Confederation has also called for priority access for healthcare staff. Dr Layla McCay, a director at the organisation, said: 'We welcome the health secretary’s suggestion that tests should be given to those who need them most and suggest that first in the queue should be NHS and care home staff as well as their dependents.'

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