GPs to 'focus on urgent appointments and jabs only' until January, says Javid

GP practices will focus solely on delivering urgent appointments and vaccinations for the next two to three weeks as the UK ramps up its COVID-19 booster campaign, the government has said.

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid (Photo: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced on 12 December that the UK faced an 'Omicron emergency' - with a 'tidal wave' of cases now sweeping across the country.

Speaking just a fortnight after the government promised to offer COVID-19 booster jabs to all adults by the end of January, the prime minister said that the 'Omicron emergency' meant this target must now be brought forward to the end of December.

The UK has administered around 22m third or booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine to date - leaving around 30m adults still to receive a booster jab.

Omicron emergency

Jabs will now be offered to anyone who received a second dose at least three months ago, a target understood to mean that vaccination sites - many of them led by GP practice teams - will need to administer an unprecedented 1m COVID-19 jabs a day until the end of the year.

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid told the BBC's Today programme on 13 December that the accelerated COVID-19 booster campaign was the 'new national mission' for the rest of 2021.

He said: 'It does mean that when it comes to primary care for the next couple of weeks our GPs will only be focusing on urgent needs and vaccinations and it also means that non urgent appointments and elective surgeries may have to be postponed into the new year.'

The health and social care secretary - who has criticised general practice over access to face-to-face appointments despite the profession delivering more than half of patient contacts in person throughout the pandemic - admitted the focus on booster jabs would limit access to GPs.

Face-to-face appointments

Asked if people who wanted face-to-face appointments may not be able to get one, he said: 'Yes, for the next two to three weeks this is the new national mission.'

NHS England has also confirmed that GP teams 'will be asked to clinically prioritise their services to free up maximal capacity to support the COVID-19 vaccination programme', warning that some routine appointments may be postponed.

In a newsletter sent to practices, one LMC said it understood NHS England would be putting out new guidance for practices imminently on plans to increase the focus on the vaccination campaign. Parts of the QOF and some enhanced services have already been suspended for the rest of the current financial year to ease pressure on practices, while PCN targets and funding have been revamped.

Speaking on 12 December, the prime minister said: 'Today we are launching the Omicron Emergency Boost, a national mission unlike anything we have done before in the vaccination programme.

Booster jabs

'A fortnight ago I said we would offer every eligible adult a booster by the end of January. Today, in light of this Omicron emergency, I am bringing that target forward by a whole month. Everyone eligible aged 18 and over in England will have the chance to get their booster before the New Year.'

The drive to speed up rollout of COVID-19 vaccination comes as GP practices are already facing intense pressure. The profession delivered more than 30m appointments in October alone - or 34m once COVID-19 vaccination work is factored in.

Meanwhile, the GP workforce is smaller than it was just six years ago - with the average GP now responsible for 300 extra patients compared with 2015 according to BMA estimates.

GPonline reported earlier this month on the impact of soaring hospital waiting lists on general practice workload. The National Audit Office warned that with almost 6m people now on waiting lists for elective care, practices were facing additional pressure from patients requiring repeated consultations during often extremely long waits for treatment.

Operations postponed

Mr Javid admitted that the focus on responding to the 'Omicron emergency' would leave some patients waiting even longer - with operations potentially postponed into the new year.

Speaking at Downing Street on 12 December, Mr Johnson said NHS frontline staff had done an 'amazing job' throughout the pandemic.

He said: 'I know the pressures on everyone in our NHS - from our GPs, doctors and nurses to our porters - all of whom have worked incredibly hard. But I say directly to those of you on the front line, I must ask you to make another extraordinary effort now.'

He said the government would deploy 'military planning teams' in every region, along with 'additional vaccine sites and mobile units, extending opening hours so clinics are open seven days a week, with more appointments early in the morning, in the evening, and at weekends, and training thousands more volunteer vaccinators'.

Mr Johnson added that the government would 'set out further steps in the days ahead'.

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