How many retired GPs could return to work to fight COVID-19?

As many as 5,000 GPs who have recently retired or stopped practising could be invited back to work under emergency measures in the coronavirus outbreak, GMC figures suggest.

(Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images)
(Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images)

The government has said it plans to set up emergency registration and indemnity for recently retired health professionals to boost the NHS workforce if large numbers of doctors are forced to self-isolate as COVID-19 spreads.

CMO Professor Chris Whitty has made clear the government will only look to bring back clinicians who retired in the past two or three years, while FY1 doctors and final-year medical students could also have their rights to practise extended.

The GMC has revealed to GPonline that approximately 15,500 doctors have relinquished their licence to practise in the last three years - a mix of doctors across primary and secondary care.

Given that around 33% of doctors on the GMC register are GPs, this suggests approximately 5,115 inactive GPs could be asked to return to work in as part of an emergency coronavirus response.

GMC registration

As of 12 March, 596 people in the UK had tested positive for COVID-19, with 10 deaths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has now declared the outbreak a global pandemic.

The GMC has confirmed some of the conditions under which it would invite doctors back to service should the government activate emergency plans.

Clinicians rejoining the workforce would not have to pay for their temporary registration, while the GMC has said it doesn’t expect doctors to be subject to revalidation during their temporary registration.

Returning doctors would not need to go through the registration process - it would be done automatically by the GMC - and would be able to opt out of their temporary registration.

Medical indemnity

However, the BMA has criticised the government for failing to ‘provide clarity’ around its key issues for doctors returning to the workforce - including indemnity, training and death-in-service benefits.

Medical director for the GMC Professor Colin Melville told GPonline that the regulator had been ‘working closely’ with the DHSC as part of its pandemic planning preparations.

‘If [the powers available to the health minister in the event of an emergency] were activated we could, if necessary, grant temporary registration for the duration of the emergency to certain groups of appropriate people, to supplement doctor numbers and provide cover in a range of roles,' he said.

‘The first group we would grant temporary registration to is doctors who have recently relinquished their licence to practice, for example because they have recently retired.

‘We understand that there could be health or personal reasons why some of those doctors would not feel they could return to work, and they would be able to opt out.’

The GMC confirmed it would be working with the system and NHS employers to ensure that doctors had all the support and guidance needed to help ensure the safe integration back into the medical workforce.

However, it said decisions about how staff are deployed and how service provision is monitored would be decided by the health service.

The regulator yesterday moved to reassure doctors serving during the spread of coronavirus that it would take context into account when investigating complaints against doctors - acknowledgment that clinicians may be forced to work 'outside their normal scope of practice'.

'Pressure will inevitably be exacerbated by staff shortages due to sickness or caring responsibilities… we recognise this will require temporary changes to practice, and that regulators and others will take this into account,' the joint statement read.

Retired doctors

Almost two weeks since the government announced its plan to ask inactive doctors to return to work, the BMA has criticised ministers for failing to provide doctors with ‘all the information they need to’ make an informed decision about renewing their registration.

Although ministers confirmed that retired NHS staff ‘will not have their pensions negatively impacted’, details around indemnity cover and death-in-service benefits have been lacking.

In a video message, BMA deputy chair Dr David Wrigley said: ‘So far the government hasn’t provided any clarity on a number of issues, such as GMC registration, indemnity, deaths in service benefit, any impact on their pensions and how they will be trained and integrated back into the workplace.

'These will all take time to address and it is important this work is done now so that retired doctors can decide whether they would wish to return and in what capacity.

‘Bringing staff out of retirement isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The idea has merit but the government needs to take all these factors into account, giving workers all the information they need to make an informed decision about supporting the NHS in a time of crisis.’

He also highlighted that many retired healthcare workers ‘are of an age that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19’ and needed to know in what capacity they would be asked to work to ensure they wouldn’t be ‘putting themselves at risk’.

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