Plan to relax COVID rules threatens 'major impact on GP workload', warn GP leaders

Practice workload will spike after 19 July in line with rapidly rising COVID-19 cases if government plans to drop restrictions go ahead, GP leaders have warned - amid calls for use of masks in primary care to continue.

Mask requirements could be lifted from 19 July (Photo: Getty Images)

The government is expected to confirm on Monday 12 July whether plans to scrap nearly all COVID-19 rules from 19 July will go ahead.

However, COVID-19 cases are already rising fast, with nearly 36,000 cases reported on 9 July - in line with levels last seen in January. Ministers have admitted that COVID-19 cases could rise to 50,000 per day by 19 July - and to 100,000 cases or more later in the summer.

Both the BMA GP committee and the RCGP have warned that the planned relaxation of rules will have a major impact on pressure on GP practices - and have urged the government to think again on plans to lift requirements around wearing masks in primary care and other settings.

GPs under pressure

Speaking to GPonline, BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said practices were 'already under massive pressure' - with the NHS secondary care backlog and large numbers of queries about vaccinations adding to already heavy workload.

He said: 'What we are likely now to start to see is a rapid rise in consultations relating to COVID-19, as the prevalence increases across the country.

'We're going to be having more consultations in general practice, and related to that and also thinking about the longer term, we're going to have far more patients with long COVID.'

The Leeds GP warned that younger people were 'predominantly the ones who are contracting COVID-19 at the moment' - and that widespread prevalence of long COVID in this cohort meant a wave of patients who normally would rarely visit GPs could require regular support to manage a new long-term condition.


'That's going to have a major long-term impact on the workload pressures in general practice, if we see many more thousands or even millions of people living with the consequences of COVID-19 infection. The government needs to be very aware of the long-term impacts of its policy on general practice.'

Dr Vautrey warned that whereas summer normally offered a 'quieter period', there was no evidence of a drop in workload this year - leaving the general practice workforce with no chance to 'take time off to recharge and to prepare for what's going to be one of the worst winters that they've experienced'.

He added: 'We have already seen a resurgence of respiratory viral infections particularly in children at the moment and that is one of the factors adding to our workload pressures and we fear that that's going to be just a sign of what's to come in the winter.'

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said the 'inevitable' rise in COVID-19 cases as restrictions were eased would have 'significant implications for general practice, the wider NHS, and public health in general'.

Mask wearing

The college chair said: 'We understand the drive to return to normal as soon as possible. And as GPs, who are at the forefront of caring for patients whose physical and mental health has been directly and indirectly impacted by lockdown restrictions, we see both sides of the argument.

'But the safety of patients, and those delivering their care, must be paramount. This is why we are calling for the continued use of masks, and other appropriate infection control measures, in general practice settings post-19 July.

'We believe this is a reasonable and proportionate response to rising case numbers. It is also essential that the government produces clear guidance encouraging the public to continue to behave cautiously and use masks in crowded public places, where appropriate.'

Professor Marshall added: 'GPs and our teams are already working under intense workload and workforce pressures, making record numbers of patient consultations as well as delivering around two thirds of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

'In the face of rising case numbers, we need clarity on how GPs should be expected to prioritise their workload and ensure effective infection control in primary care settings - as well as what the advice is for patients who have symptoms that may be COVID, given our enhanced understanding of the virus.'

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