More than half of GP locums have seen a significant drop in income due to COVID-19

More than half of GP locums have experienced a significant fall in their income during the COVID-19 pandemic, a GPonline poll suggests.

(Photo: Viktoria Rodriguez/Getty Images)
(Photo: Viktoria Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Some 55% of the 112 GP locums responding to the poll said that their income had decreased significantly during the COVID-19 outbreak, while a further 26% said it had decreased slightly.

Just 13% said that their earnings had remained the same.

GPonline reported last month that locums had been left stranded during the pandemic with routine work drying up. Patients being reluctant to contact their surgery at the height of the pandemic and partners and salaried GPs not taking annual leave was said to have caused the shortfall.

The survey results confirm that locums have experienced a drop off in bookings. Some 81% of locums said that demand for their services had fallen during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, 43% of 152 GP partners responding to the poll said that their practice's use of locums had decreased as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

However, the BMA predicted that locum workloads would begin to increase to 'in days' as practices started to see an increase in patient numbers.

Despite the uncertainty of recent months, four out of five locums said they would not being seeking a permanent GP role in the future. But 17% indicated that they planned to look for a salaried position.

Financial difficulties

Locums responding to the survey described having their sessions cancelled and facing financial difficulties. One said: ‘I have gone from working eight or nine sessions a week to working between one and four. It's been quite hard and [I’ve had] no support from anywhere given [my] income bracket.’

‘I work out of hours self-employed, NHS 111 self-employed, A&E salaried two days a week. [I had an] illness, probably not COVID-19, but isolation requirements [meant I lost] around £4,000 in income in April,’ said another.

Writing for GPonline earlier this month, one locum GP said that they had been left worrying about how they would pay their bills without steady work.

Chair of the National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP) Dr Richard Fieldhouse said: ‘Generally speaking, the older [locums will] have their feet under the table in terms of paying their mortgage and student debt… so they are able to weather this better.

‘It is really the more newly-qualified GPs who are very nervous and don't know what to do… they are feeling professionally isolated.

‘The ones we tend to hear most about are those who haven't been able to get government support or bounce back loans because they are not a limited company or haven’t been earning enough. But I would argue these are the people who need it more. So they have been left feeling very vulnerable.’

Under-used workforce

Some GP locums responding to the poll criticised the government's reliance on returning retired doctors, rather than making better use of the existing locum workforce. At the start of this month GPonline reported that locum GPs were being overlooked for shifts with NHS 111's Covid Clinical Assessment Service during the pandemic because of an influx of recently retired doctors applying for the same work.

Dr Fieldhouse said that there was a need for a long-term project to accurately track locum numbers to ensure the workforce was better used in the future.

'Ever since I've been a locum it has been talked about. The other day I was speaking to an LMC that has 130 locums on its database, yet when they crossed-checked that figure with the local NHS England database there were only 23,' Dr Fieldhouse said. ‘I think it's really brought it into focus for sure – it needs a long-term solution.’

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey acknowledged that some locums had lost out financially during the crisis, but said he believed that work would soon return. He said: ‘It’s clearly a problem for individual doctors who have seen a loss of income and it is a concern for anyone in that situation. But I think it is changing very quickly.

‘We are hearing reports from practices that they are busier than they would be normally. Patients are contacting practices in the same way that they were doing before, so there is certainly going to be a need for locums like there was before.’

Dr Vautrey agreed that more accurate counting of GP locum numbers would be useful. He said: ‘It’s a very complex workforce picture but we do need better quality data so we know exactly what is happening with the workforce.’

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