GPs under pressure as flu and elective care freeze take toll

Practices are continuing to experience extreme pressure as flu levels remain high and the impact of a month of cancelled elective care in hospitals takes its toll, GP leaders have warned.

Hospitals reported average bed occupancy rates close to 95% for the third week running in the week to 21 January, NHS England data on winter pressures reveal. The bed occupancy target for hospitals is 85% - because beyond this rate hospitals face increased risk of chronic bed shortages or crises.

Flu cases 'appear to be stabilising', according to an NHS England statement on Thursday morning. Official data from Public Health England are expected to confirm this later today.

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline that GP practices were continuing to experience high levels of pressure. 'Pressures are high, we are still seeing large numbers of patients with flu and flu-like illness, taking up a lot of appointments,' he said.

'Quite a few practices are providing extra appointments, working longer - trying to fit more and more into the working day. There are significant burdens on staff and GPs.'

Winter pressure

Dr Vautrey said practices were adding extra appointments at the end of routine surgeries, or adding emergency surgeries into their working day. But he warned that in many areas efforts to ease pressure on the health service often seemed to ignore pressure on primary care.

'I saw an email yesterday saying how pressured A&E was, warning GPs to do all you can to ease their pressure. We don't see emails going the other way saying relieve pressure on general practice because they are under pressure, or anyone often trying to provide the support GPs need. And often many patients are coming in specifically because their appointments have been delayed in hospitals and they are worried.'

Dr Vautrey added that some CCGs had used winter pressures funding to offer practices access to extra appointment capacity at local 'hub' services, or to engage out-of-hours or urgent care providers to deliver additional evening and weekend appointments, but this support was not available everywhere.

He added that despite additional strain in winter, practices were under severe pressure all year round and warned that without significant new investment that would continue to be the case.

Despite the possible stabilisation in flu cases, hospitals reported a sharp rise in cases of norovirus, with reports now above the five-year average for the week to 21 January. A total of 742 beds were closed each day last week for norovirus, diarrhoea or vomiting - up from 621 the previous week.

There were 11,000 cases of patients waiting longer than 30 minutes in an ambulance upon arrival at hospital in the week to 21 January, down from more than 12,000 the week before. 

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