Remote GP consultations a 'lifeline for the NHS' during pandemic, says Hancock

The rapid switch to remote GP consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic provided a 'lifeline for the NHS' as it faced its greatest ever challenge, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has said.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: HGL/GC Images/Getty Images)
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: HGL/GC Images/Getty Images)

In a video message to an RCGP virtual conference the health and social care secretary praised general practice for its rapid and 'seamless' adoption of technology and remote consultations during the pandemic.

Mr Hancock praised GPs' 'hard work, perseverance and dedication' and promised to 'strain every sinew' to support the profession through winter.

He told the conference: 'I want to say thank you for how rapidly you adapted. Working quickly to change to identify and support shielded and high-risk patients. I really appreciate the enormous effort that went into that.

Remote consultations

'Thank you for embracing the remote consultations that have been such a lifeline for the health service. I know this was a big change for how practices are run but it was important and it happened so fast, so seamlessly. I know this was difficult time for our GPs.'

The comments are in stark contrast to criticism of general practice over access to face-to-face appointments over recent weeks.

NHS England board papers earlier this month suggested officials believe GPs are not delivering 'appropriate levels of activity' - just weeks after NHS England's primary care medical director apologised for an 'insulting' letter that reminded GPs of their duty to offer face-to-face appointments.

The health and social care secretary hailed the fact that 'almost overnight' 99% of GP practices were able to begin offering remote consultations - and said he wanted to 'keep driving the digital transformation.

Digital GP services

'I want to keep driving the digital transformation and building on the incredible adoption and acceleration we have seen over the last few months that was really well received by patients, and I know a huge number of GPs have embraced it too.

'I will keep pursuing this challenge so we can offer greater flexibility to patients and make sure everyone has the opportunity to get advice and support in a way that works for them.'

Mr Hancock promised to 'strain every sinew' to support GPs through what promises to be a deeply challenging winter for the health service.

Despite BMA calls for a public inquiry over the government's handling of the pandemic, Mr Hancock insisted the government had 'made it our mission to give the best possible support to GPs' - citing the COVID-19 support fund, and the distribution of '20,000 laptops and headsets'.

GP funding

He pledged to work on reducing bureaucracy and said investment in general practice through the NHS long-term plan and five-year contract, along with record trainee recruitment, provided 'strong foundations' for the profession.

He told the conference: 'These are strong foundations that are especially important as we approach this crucial and difficult winter, with the virus accelerating. We are seeing more pressure on our health and care system. Once again you will be instrumental to our response.'

GPs' role in delivering an expanded flu campaign had been key, he added, in putting the NHS 'in the strongest possible position' ahead of winter.

'Let us hope there will be further vaccines to come. This year has been one of the most testing years the NHS has ever faced. We are not done yet. At this critical juncture i have no doubt that you will show the care and dedication you have shown throughout this crisis. We will strain every sinew to help you help others this winter and beyond.'

Reacting to the speech on Twitter, however, one RCGP council member criticised the speech from the health and social care secretary as 'platitudes and hollow words' - and highlighed his failure to mention GPs who have lost their lives during the pandemic.

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