QOF suspension confirmed for GP practices in Northern Ireland

QOF targets have been suspended for the rest of the 2016/17 financial year in Northern Ireland to ease pressure on practices, health service leaders have confirmed.

Northern Ireland GPC chair Dr Tom Black: mass resignation warning
Northern Ireland GPC chair Dr Tom Black: mass resignation warning

Confirmation that the framework will be suspended in Northern Ireland is likely to further exasperate GP leaders in England, which is now the only part of the UK where the QOF has not been either suspended or discontinued.

A letter to GP practices from the Northern Ireland health and social care board's general medical services director Dr Margaret O'Brien said: 'Practices will not be expected to complete work against their QOF targets for the rest of the financial year due to the immediate pressures facing GP services.'

The letter, dated 10 February, explains that practices can choose whether to be paid on their actual 2016/17 QOF achievement or average performance over the past two years. Practices that took part in a 'QOF holiday' offered in 2015/16 will have the option to be paid for 2016/17 based on average 2013/14 and 2014/15 achievement.

QOF targets

NHS Wales confirmed in mid-January that practices would no longer be required to hit most QOF targets for the rest of 2016/17, and in Scotland the framework has been dropped as part of ongoing plans to overhaul the GP contract.

The Northern Ireland deal also comes less than a week after NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens warned that an agreement to suspend QOF in Leeds - where GP workload pressure has been exacerbated by problems with a local pathology service - was 'not legal'.

Both the RCGP and GPC have pressed for a suspension of the QOF across England for the rest of 2016/17. But health service leaders have rejected the calls, citing feedback from 'a number of practices' that the move could be unfair on those that had done much of the work to achieve targets and may do little to ease pressure anyway.

GP workload

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey, who is also assistant medical secretary at Leeds LMC, said last week he was surprised at NHS England's stance on QOF.

He told GPonline: 'It seems that there is one rule for their approach to relaxing routine work done in hospitals and quite another for general practices who are under similar if not greater workload pressures. Suspending QOF won't solve practices' workload pressures but will make a tangible difference and has been widely welcomed by the practices in the areas where it has been suggested.'

The QOF has been frozen for 2017/18 under the GP contract deal announced last week, but the value of each point will rise by 3.6% - just over £6 - to reflect changes in average practice list size.

GPs in Northern Ireland are poised to resign en masse from the NHS over a crisis that has left general practice in the country on the brink of collapse. Northern Ireland GPC chair Dr Tom Black said earlier this year that the collapse of the government - with a general election now looming on 2 March - had made it inevitable that GPs would quit the NHS.

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