Third of locum GPs considering switch to permanent role after pandemic disruption

A third of locum GPs are considering moving to a permanent role after a sharp drop in available work triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, a GPonline poll suggests.

(Photo: sturti/Getty Images)
(Photo: sturti/Getty Images)

The survey of 310 GPs who described their main role as being a locum found that 25% were considering taking on a salaried role and 8% had thought about becoming a partner as a direct result of the pandemic.

Some 79% had seen demand for their services fall at the peak of the pandemic, according to the poll, which was carried out in August. Nearly half (44%) said the available work had still not increased, despite the easing of lockdown and practices' workloads increasing.

Of those GPs who were working as a locum a year ago, 63% said demand for their services now was lower than it was 12 months previously. Only 6% said demand for their services was higher than it was a year ago.

The findings follow a GPonline poll earlier this year, which found locum income had been hit by a fall in work available during the pandemic.

Locum GP income

That survey, conducted in May, suggested that half of locums had seen a significant drop in income as a result of the pandemic. A further 26% said it had decreased slightly, while just 13% said that their earnings had remained the same.

Many GPs responding to this latest poll said that work dried up completely during the peak of the pandemic as practices sought to adapt to new ways of working, introducing total triage and remote consultations, and most staff cancelled annual leave. Some said that they had switched to working solely for out-of-hours providers as a result, while others said they had no work at all.

'I went from having six to seven sessions of work per week to, almost overnight, having no work whatsoever between the end of March and June 2020. It was a very stressful time,' one GP said.

A number of locums highlighted that the only work available was working in hot sites seeing patients suspected of having COVID-19.

COVID-19 risk

'The hot sites, where the most risky face-to-face work was taking place, was left for locum GPs in the main,' said one locum. 'This was at the height of the pandemic, when PPE supply was not guaranteed and death-in-service benefits were still not available to locum GPs, so essentially the risk was not worth taking.'

'It was difficult to obtain work,' another said. 'Shifts were cancelled by practices at short notice and only high-risk work was available.'

Problems obtaining work, which appear to be ongoing for many respondents, are the driving force behind many locums considering their future career options, the poll's responses suggest.

The findings reflect estimates from GP leaders that as many as 1,000 GPs may have already quit locum work to take up salaried positions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because of concerns over financial security.

'At the end of April my maternity locum ended and I have remained jobless since, as GP locum work has all but dried up,' one GP said. 'In 23 years of career locuming, I have never found myself jobless before. I am now thinking of retiring from general practice altogether.'

GP career choices

'It was very stressful as there was little or no work. I don't mind working in a hub if given the adequate PPE and pay, but to work in a surgery seeing only face-to-face patients for the same 10-minute slots with no consideration for donning PPE and half the pay is simply unacceptable and unsafe,' another locum said. 'The pandemic of course has made me reconsider my career choices.'

'Demand has decreased – I have seen many of my colleagues looking for salaried GP posts,' said another.

Many GPs responding to the poll also highlighted concerns about whether the work available woud return to usual levels. 'There's been a complete change in that previously lots of work was out there – enough for all locums really,' one GP said. 'But now there is very high competition with lots (more than 10) applying for each shift.'

However, despite this, many remained confident that work would return, especially when practice staff began taking annual leave. A number of respondents said that demand for their services was starting to increase while some said that it had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Several respondents to the survey said they believed GP locums could have played a much greater role during the pandemic. In particular, a number highlighted the drive to recruit recently-retired GPs to staff NHS 111's COVID-19 Clinical Assessment Service when employing exisiting locums had not been considered.

'[Locums] were under-utilised during the pandemic,' one GP said. 'We could have helped the NHS so much in this time of need but no opportunities were provided.'

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