Locum GPs 'stranded' as work dries up in COVID-19 crisis

Locum GPs have been left in limbo during the COVID-19 pandemic with routine work drying up and NHS 111 shifts oversubscribed, sessional GP leaders have warned.

GP phone consultations have risen (Photo: sturti/Getty Images)
GP phone consultations have risen (Photo: sturti/Getty Images)

National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP) chair Dr Richard Fieldhouse has accused the government of poor workforce planning for failing to make proper use of the locum GP workforce during the outbreak.

Locums have been left 'feeling stranded’ and are facing financial difficulty due to ‘lots and lots of cancellations’ in recent weeks, Dr Fieldhouse warned.

Regular work has dried up as practices across the UK have rapidly shifted to providing most consultations digitally or by telephone, and as patient contacts with practices have fallen.

Locum GP workforce

Dr Fieldhouse added that the situation had been made worse by a lack of ‘joined up thinking’, with the influx of GPs returning to the workforce during the pandemic crowding out locum applications for NHS 111 shifts - leaving many active clinicians out of work.

The reduction in available work comes despite BMA guidance urging practices to maintain their use of locums. BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'I think it’s important that we maintain the commitments that we’ve made to locums because they are a valued and important part of the workforce.' The BMA has also held talks with NHS England over plans for a national service for 'cascading additional shifts' in primary care to make it easier for locums to find work.

Dr Fieldhouse has called on the government to temporarily stand down returning GPs to ensure that locums can find work - and urged ministers to start planning for 'an onslaught' of work in general practice after the pandemic.

Speaking to GPonline, Dr Fieldhouse said a decrease in patient footfall had led to practices cancelling locum shifts. He said: ‘Locums who have been regularly supporting practices have just been dropped with only a few days notice. Practices just don’t have a need for locums currently, so they aren’t booking them.

‘All of this means that locums have been left feeling really stranded. They have no one to turn to and people are finding themselves in financial difficulty because there is no work from practices.'

Varied work patterns

Dr Vautrey told GPonline last week that locum work patterns were ‘variable across the country’, but said that areas such as south-east England and London remained ‘very busy’.

He explained that an increase in video consultations, patients observing social distancing and shielding measures, along with GPs not taking annual leave were all contributing to a lack of available work for locums during the pandemic.

Dr Fieldhouse also revealed locums had been struggling to secure shifts with NHS 111 amid a huge influx of applications from returning GPs. Thousands of GPs were granted temporary registration during the pandemic to boost the workforce.

The NASGP chair said with some older locums had been told to reapply for work as a returning doctor to ensure their applications were considered.

Poor planning

‘You've got a situation where GPs who are active and current - and have done all their appraisal and revalidation - are not able to do work. Yet we've been bringing in retired GPs, who haven’t been revalidated for years and are not up to date with clinical practice,’ he said.

‘From the very first day that the government said it was bringing back all these returning GPs I thought, but what are they doing about the locums? We already have GPs out there, who are going to be needing this work. This just proves the point that there's no robust [workforce] planning whatsoever,’ he added.

Locum GPs can apply to the government’s self-employment income support scheme, which allows workers financially affected by COVID-19 to claim a taxable grant worth 80% of their trading profits - although the maximum monthly claim is capped at £2,500.

However, many full-time locums will be unable to benefit from the scheme because of a rule specifying that 'your trading profits must also be no more than £50,000 and more than half of your total income for either the tax year 2018/19 or the average of the tax years 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19.

A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘We recognise the valuable contribution locums make to general practice and thank those that have come forward to support NHS 111. They will continue to play an important role in coming weeks, both through national work and in local areas.’

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