GPs need resources to tackle 'inevitable' surge in demand amid tumbling A&E visits

GP practices must be given the resources they need to cope with an inevitable surge in demand for routine care during the coronavirus pandemic as patients stay away from A&E departments, the BMA has warned.

Patients are staying away from emergency departments (Photo: Richard Johnson/Getty Images)
Patients are staying away from emergency departments (Photo: Richard Johnson/Getty Images)

NHS England figures published on Thursday (14 May) show that A&E visits during April were down by 57% on last year as just 916,581 people attended - the lowest figure since records began in 2010.

An average of 2.1m people arrived at A&E departments each month before the pandemic, with the statistics showing patient numbers began to drop dramatically in March.

Figures also show a rise in waits for consult referrals to elective care, while urgent cancer referrals in March dipped by around 10% compared with last year.

COVID-19 impact

Doctors have argued the statistics show the huge impact COVID-19 is having on people seeking care - and have stressed they must be supported to deal with an unavoidable wave of work in the coming months.

A recent BMA survey found that two in five doctors were most concerned about the long-term impact COVID-10 would have on patient clinical demand, while 56% said that care for or patients without COVID-19 symptoms had worsened.

BMA emergency medicine lead and consultants committee deputy chair Dr Simon Walsh, said: ‘As [the] figures show, we are seeing a substantial drop in the numbers of patients coming to emergency departments – the impact of COVID-19 on people seeking care couldn’t be clearer.

‘Whilst many healthcare staff continue to deal with the pandemic and people play their part in helping reduce the spread of infection, doctors are clear that the emergency care system remains in place and those who do genuinely need emergency care must come forward.

Additional resources needed

‘There will be many patients understandably distressed at not knowing when they will get the treatment they need, so getting care and treatment to those patients who badly need it at this time must be an absolute priority going forward.

‘GPs and hospitals must be given the resources they need to cope with what will undoubtedly be a surge in demand for routine care in the weeks and months ahead.’

NHS England has previously said that practices are likely to receive funding for any additional staff costs as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, which could also include more staff to deal with any surge in workload as patients start returning to general practice. However the details of the final funding package are still waiting for government approval.

NHS England statistics show that GPs made 181,873 urgent cancer referrals during March – this was down from 196,425 during the same month last year.

GPonline has previously reported that patients were waiting more than a month for urgent cancer checks during the coronavirus pandemic. Patients have a legal right to be seen within two weeks if they are referred for suspected cancer.

Polling by NHS England also found that four in 10 people are not seeking help from their GP because they are afraid to be a burden on the NHS during the pandemic. Figures from the Office for National Statistics on deaths in England and Wales, meanwhile, show that deaths not linked to COVID-19 are above the five-year average.

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