The RCGP chair said COVID-19 would pose a 'massive challenge' for the NHS. But he told GPs at the Londonwide LMCs conference that general practice had not been given adequate support from the government to deal with the growing outbreak.
Professor Marshall argued that a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 could become ‘the biggest issue the NHS has ever seen’, warning that GPs would start to feel the pressure ‘in quite a significant way’.
But he warned that the government was ‘insufficiently focused’ on general practice, with ministers prioritising hospitals and NHS 111. The RCGP chair said coronavirus management centres within each primary care network (PCN) area could be set up to care for infected patients, and called for all patients to be triaged by phone.
He predicted advice to triage all patients before appointments would be issued shortly.
The RCGP chair's warning came as a GPonline survey of more than 400 GPs found three quarters of respondents felt their practice was not ready for a coronavirus outbreak - with three in five highlighting a lack of guidance and information.
The government has confirmed that 319 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the UK, with five deaths reported.
Professor Marshall said he had been inundated by emails from concerned RCGP members because of the lack of information being given to GPs.
Addressing delegates at the London conference, Professor Marshall said COVID-19 presented ‘a massive challenge’ for the NHS: ‘Two weeks ago I wasn’t hearing very much about COVID-19 from most GP colleagues or from patients at my surgery. Right now I’m hearing an enormous amount.
‘This morning between 5am-7am I had 20 emails from RCGP members saying this is a massive problem [and asking] what are we going to do about it.
‘Overall it feels like the government are doing a reasonable job, but it does feel that they are more focused on hospitals and much more focused on NHS 111 and insufficiently focused on general practice. General practice is going to start feeling the pressure probably in quite a significant way.’
Following confirmation from the government that all people with mild cold or flu symptoms could soon be asked to self-isolate for a week, Professor Marshall said the UK as a whole and the NHS had an obligation to ‘risk overacting’ to deal with coronavirus following its rapid spread in Italy.
He said: ‘There’s talk at the moment about maybe establishing locally based, or PCN-based management centres so that anybody that is confirmed to have COVID-19 is looked after by a separate group of staff.
‘We’re talking about reducing workload in a whole range of different ways, like getting rid of QOF straight away. Who knows, maybe stopping all CQC activity… maybe stopping annual appraisals for a year. There are a lot of things that could be done, or need to be done.'
Responding to government plans to call in retired doctors, Professor Marshall said the idea was ‘interesting’. ‘My suspicion, call me an optimist, is that most recently retired GPs will rise to that challenge and want to do it,’ he said.
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