Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has said the government is considering measures to ramp up the UK’s response to COVID-19 to ‘relieve the pressure on the NHS’ and protect the public.
The plans include looking at emergency registration and indemnity cover for retired health professionals to avoid a potential staffing crisis if large numbers of doctors are forced to self-isolate.
But the BMA has warned that older GPs returning to frontline work during a coronavirus outbreak could be at significant risk - even if training, indemnity and registration issues could be addressed.
The association has also been pressuring NHS England to provide GP practices with supplies and equipment to ensure risk to existing staff and patients is minimised.
Prime minister Boris Johnson held a COVID-19 Cobra meeting on 2 March to thrash out a government ‘battle plan’ to tackle the spread of the virus. A total of 40 cases have been confirmed in the UK.
BMA representative body chair Dr Helena McKeown warned the government's plan to encourage retired doctors back to work had to prioritise their wellbeing.
She said: ‘Retired doctors have a wealth of knowledge and expertise and some may well be able and willing to contribute their skills during emergencies.
‘However, much would depend on how long the doctor has been retired and what tasks they would be undertaking. For many there would of course be issues with GMC registration, indemnity and training that would need to be addressed.
Furthermore, bearing in mind many retired doctors’ ages, we must consider their own wellbeing and whether they would be putting themselves at risk by returning to work.’
Coronavirus 'battle plan'
Plans expected shortly will outline the steps the government will take to manage COVID-19 if there is a sustained UK epidemic.
Law and policy lead at the Doctor's Association UK (DAUK) Dr Jenny Vaughan said: 'Plans to enlist retired doctors in the case of a coronavirus outbreak seem ill-thought out; not least because the virus has a higher mortality in older persons. Many doctors have been forced to retire early due to an equally ill-thought out pensions tax.'
RCGP joint honorary secretary Dr Jonathan Leach said: 'Retired healthcare professionals have a huge amount to offer the health service... but any drafting in of their skills to help deal with COVID-19 would need to be their choice and with their full understanding of the situation and any associated risks, and that every effort is made to ensure they are protected.
'We need to see the details of how this plan would work, but it might be that retired medics are not treating COVID-19 patients face-to-face, but helping out in other ways that increase capacity in the system.'
At least 25 GP practices in England have been forced to close temporarily for cleaning since mid-February amid concerns over coronavirus. Doctors argue that they require greater support from NHS England and the government to protect their patients and staff, with some GPs revealing they have insufficient levels of personal protection equipment (PPE).
The BMA has called on NHS England to deliver supplies and equipment to save GPs trying to source their own, warning that the time taken to order PPE leaves practice staff and communities at risk.
As of 9am on 2 March, a total of 13,525 people have been tested in the UK, of which 13,485 were confirmed negative and 40 positive.