GPonline has spoken to GPs who have lost their job, or are at risk of doing so because they have been unable to fulfil partnership duties while experiencing long COVID.
During the first wave of the pandemic NHS England advised practices to 'offer full pay to any staff taking COVID-19 related sick leave'. It confirmed in August that 'the cost of clinical and non-clinical cover will be reimbursed...where practices have offered full pay to staff absent for COVID-19 related reasons' for the period from 23 March to 31 July 2020.
A £150m support package for general practice in England announced ahead of the second wave said this could 'potentially' be used for 'offering backfill for staff absences where this is agreed by the CCG'.
GPs facing long COVID
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said COVID-19 funding to support practices facing long-term absences must be ringfenced and provided on a longer-term basis to ensure they can retain experienced GPs.
Dr Vautrey echoed warnings from doctors experiencing long COVID that GPs ‘need a prolonged period of leave’ to recover from their illness and that practices must be supported to cope with this.
One GP told GPonline that they tried to return to work in a partnership role twice after contracting coronavirus at work last year but were unable to do so because of ongoing symptoms.
The GP said when they informed other partners at their practice that they had been advised to take several months off work to recover, the other partners felt they would be unable to cope. The GP ultimately was forced out of their partnership role because they were unable to fulfil duties set out in the partnership agreement.
‘My partners told me I hadn’t done anything wrong and there was never any question around my capability as a doctor or partner,' the GP said. 'They said it was purely down to the worry of me having a long-term condition and needing another partner for continuity of care...and worries over a lack of financial support.'
The GP has now returned to work as a locum, and says they are now operating ‘at full pelt’ after feeling the effects of long COVID for months. They warned that family doctors remain ‘particularly vulnerable’ to the effects of inadequate financial support.
‘We can take the burden off practices by offering better reimbursement. We should not forget this is an occupational illness - we got this at work. I think the least the NHS can do for us is to reimburse practices fully for 12 months, so practices’ can be reimbursed or that money is passed on to the salaried doctor or the practice staff,’ they said.
A BMA survey in December revealed that around 5% of doctors were suffering from continuing coronavirus symptoms several weeks after they had contracted COVID-19 - rising from 4% in October. In August the association warned of ‘significant levels’ of long-term COVID-19 symptoms in patients and doctors.
Dr Vautrey said: ‘The government and NHS England must do everything they can to prevent talented staff from losing their jobs due to sickness, especially at a time of national crisis when every healthcare worker is more precious than ever.
‘Because of insufficient payments being made to practices by CCGs and NHS England & Improvement to be able to support those working in the practice who may develop long COVID - and need a prolonged period of leave, practices are left with the impossible choice of reducing their services or letting staff go. This is an even more challenging situation when the system is pressuring practices to maintain service provision above all.’
He added: ‘While some funding has been available to practices between November to March for workforce expansion, the pandemic has not ended and this situation will continue. There is therefore an urgent need for COVID-19 funding to be ring fenced and provided longer-term to protect practices, as well as the Statement of Financial Entitlement to be changed to better support surgeries and their valued staff.’
A Department of Health & Social Care spokesperson said: 'We are committed to supporting GPs during the pandemic and have made available an additional £150 million to the end of March 2021. At the same time, the NHS is working with GPs to develop good practice guidance on employment terms and conditions.
'The government is acutely aware of the indiscriminate and lasting impact COVID-19 can have and we have invested in new specialist long-COVID assessment services across the country to provide more support to people. COVID-19 can affect anyone and is paramount that everyone continues to follow the rules by staying home, protecting the NHS, saving lives.'