GPs forced to cover non-clinical staff as illness and fatigue hit workforce

GPs have been forced to cover for practice managers and other non-clinical staff as absences add to growing workload challenges facing surgeries in the second coronavirus wave.

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

More than half of GPs responding to a recent BMA poll reported non-clinical staff on sick leave or self-isolating within the past two weeks - and 31% of the 2,688 respondents reported these absences had a 'significant' or 'moderate' impact on patient care.

GP leaders from the BMA and RCGP have warned that the situation is ‘likely to get worse’ without increased government funding for existing and additional staff, and guarantees around risk assessments and PPE.

GPonline reported last week on the impact of clinical staff absences on primary care workload, with 60% of GPs reporting clinical staff off work or self-isolating.

Workforce fatigue

Meanwhile, former RCGP chair Professor Dame Clare Gerada warned that the COVID-19 pandemic 'must surely be contributing' to increasing numbers of primary care staff requiring mental health support in recent months.

Statistics from the NHS Practitioner Health support service indicate that more than 200 GPs a month are seeking mental health support as COVID-19 drives up pressure on the NHS.

However, non-clinical staff absences are also affecting primary care significantly - with GPs and others warning that rising rates of burnout in primary care are not limited to clinicians.

Nottingham GP Dr Irfan Malik tweeted that burnout among all primary care staff was ‘very high’, while another Nottinghamshire practice liaison officer Annie Meakin said staff were ‘leaving every day’.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey argued that further government support would be needed to help GPs cope with absences this winter. He said: ‘Inevitably, any staff absences put general practices  - which are already struggling to cope with rapidly-increasing numbers of COVID patients and people with winter respiratory tract infections - under additional and unwelcome strain.

Government support

‘The situation is likely to get worse without government funding for existing and additional staff, and a guarantee that risk assessments, shielding arrangements and protective equipment will be provided for all who need it in the months ahead.

‘This must be coupled with a proper long-term plan to bring down the number of infections in the community, and a clear and honest assessment of the impact on general practice services as this second wave gathers momentum.’

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall, said: ‘All members of the practice team play a vital role in delivering the care and services our patients need, so when someone isn’t able to work, whether due to illness or any other reason, it impacts on the whole team. 

‘Many absences are planned or unavoidable and GP teams are experienced at pulling together to ensure care is not disrupted. But in cases where members of the team are unable to work due to stress or burnout, this is avoidable and it drives home the importance of addressing “undoable” workload, and workforce pressures, in general practice – and for the profession to be properly supported at this difficult time.’

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