A report by the Health Foundation found that almost 10% of GP practices in England are run by a single GP, with these surgeries more than four times as likely to be located in the most deprived areas of the country.
The report warned that more than 700,000 patients could be left without face-to-face appointments if single-handed GPs at high risk decide to limit direct contact with patients.
The Health Foundation called on CCGs to work with practices and primary care networks (PCNs) to ensure patients can get access to face-to-face appointments without endangering GPs.
The analysis, published today, found that London could be particularly affected if single-handed GPs at high risk from COVID-19 restrict their patient-facing activities.
The capital has the highest proportion of GPs at very high risk from COVID-19 and of single-handed GP surgeries run by a GP at very high risk. The North West could also be significantly affected.
Across England, at least 8% of GPs are deemed at ‘high risk’ of death from COVID-19. NHS England has said that all staff at potentially higher risk from COVID-19 should be risk assessed and have their activities adjusted accordingly, including removal from face-to-face work.
However, the Health Foundation report authors said they did not know how single-handed GPs would, in reality, choose to step away from direct patient contact.
‘Where a single-handed GP falls into a high risk group, practices may not be able to offer any face-to-face appointments at all. This may have an impact on other local practices or care providers,’ the report said.
The research follows analysis by GPonline last month, which revealed that COVID-19 risk assessments could devastate the threadbare primary care workforce in some of England's most underdoctored areas.
It found that in some of the country's most underdoctored areas - where the overall number of patients per full-time equivalent GP is highest - the proportion of doctors in BAME and older age groups is far above the national average.
Senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation and Oxford GP Dr Rebecca Fisher, said: ‘The ongoing risk of COVID-19 to the safety of both patients and GPs means that hundreds of thousands of people may find it much harder to get a face-to-face GP appointment.
‘It’s particularly worrying that GPs at higher risk from COVID-19 are far more likely to be working in areas of high deprivation. Those are precisely the areas with the greatest health need, the biggest burden from COVID-19, and an existing under-supply of GPs relative to need.
‘Unless urgent action is taken this could become another way in which poorer communities become further disadvantaged, and risks further widening health inequalities.’
BMA GPC England chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'As this data shows, some GPs working alone are at a higher risk of becoming ill from COVID-19 and therefore, potentially not able to see patients face-to-face. If needed, locum GPs can be recruited to help these practices, but surgeries need financial support to do so, as well as adequate space in their practices to accommodate another practitioner.
'This research therefore not only highlights the need for more GPs in the system, especially in deprived areas, as well as the continued provision of effective PPE, but also free access to comprehensive occupational health services to support clinicians with risk assessments.
'The government has finally released funding to support the additional costs of responding to the pandemic for general practice, but we now need CCGs to provide the necessary support to those working in isolation, both for their own health and that of their patients.'
Last month the government announced it was funding a £2.1m study looking at why black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) healthcare workers are at greater risk from COVID-19.