The DHSC has confirmed to GPonline that unlike in hospitals - where staff and visitors are now expected to wear face coverings at all times - in primary care only staff are required to wear masks, while for patients the use of face coverings is merely 'advisory'.
BMA leaders have criticised the government over unclear advice on face coverings in GP surgeries and hospitals, saying NHS providers had been left ‘confused and unprepared’.
NHS England said in a letter earlier this month: 'The recommendation will be that all staff in hospital wear a surgical face mask when not in PPE or in a part of the facility that is COVID-secure in line with the workplace definition set by the government. The guidance will also apply to other NHS healthcare settings, including primary care.'
A DHSC spokesperson said on 15 June: ‘From today all staff in hospitals in England will be provided with, and are expected to wear, surgical masks at all times. We have adequate supply to meet the increased demand, and yesterday over 4m masks were delivered across England.
‘Outpatients and visitors should also wear a face covering throughout the duration of their stay, and in any other enclosed public spaces, such as on public transport and within GP surgeries or pharmacies.
‘This is an important step in reducing the spread of the virus amongst staff, patients and visitors.’
Guidance from Public Health England does not specifically mention primary care, but mentions that in addition to the requirement for hospital staff to wear 'a facemask', visitors and outpatients in hospital settings 'should wear a form of face covering for the same reason, to prevent the spread of infection from the wearer'.
Primary care advice
Despite the statement above that patients in primary care 'should' wear a face covering, the DHSC has confirmed that this advice is simply in line with general advice issued on 11 May, which says that the public are 'advised to consider' wearing face coverings in enclosed public spaces.
Doctors' leaders have also warned that practices must be supplied with sufficient quantities of PPE to comply with the latest advice. The government has insisted that stock levels are sufficient to cope with demand and has urged GPs to use its online PPE portal to request supplies.
Advice that all staff and visitors in hospitals should wear masks or face coverings followed evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that face coverings can help reduce the risk of transmission of coronavirus by people who are not showing symptoms.
The BMA had previously recommended that all patients visiting surgeries should wear face masks or face coverings to match hospital rules.
A GPonline poll revealed that almost three quarters of GP partners are concerned about how to keep colleagues safe as numbers of patients attending practices return to pre-pandemic levels.
- Note: This story was updated on 16 June to reflect clarification from the DHSC. On 15 June it said patients visiting primary care 'should' wear face coverings, but later clarified that patients were simply 'advised to consider' a face covering.