In a letter to health and social care secretary Matt Hancock, along with the DHSC and Healthwatch – a statutory body representing patients – GPs from the Doctors Association UK (DAUK) warned that for frontline GPs, demand is ‘going through the roof’.
The group called for an urgent review after a Healthwatch report that highlighted a rise in negative feedback about GP services around the time national COVID-19 lockdowns were imposed.
The Healthwatch report said that while for many people experiences of general practice had continued to be positive through the pandemic, others had reported concerns around booking, remote consultations and access to regular checks and treatment. It highlighted ‘concerns that this would result in extra pressure on emergency services’.
However, DAUK’s GP committee warned that if the current colossal workload being delivered in general practice was ‘still not meeting demand’, the government and NHS England must investigate.
NHS England said last month that general practice is currently delivering around 7m consultations a week including work on COVID-19 vaccinations – up around 1m appointments a week from pre-pandemic levels.
This figure is likely to be an underestimate, because data from NHS Digital do not fully reflect the number of telephone consultations in general practice – and GPonline has reported on RCGP surveillance data that show GP practice workload far outstrips pre-pandemic levels even before COVID-19 vaccination work is taken into account.
The DAUK letter said the Healthwatch report confirmed that ‘the health of the population is suffering as general practice is drowning’.
The letter said: ‘If primary care is having contact with 10% of the population each week and this is still not meeting demand there must be an urgent review to find out why.
‘The introduction of e-consults has made us more accessible than ever, and has opened the gates to a lot of trivia, which still uses GP time and resources, sometimes inappropriately. GPs are working flat out, and it is incredibly demoralising to find that our best is not enough.’
The letter said it was unacceptable if large numbers of patients were attending emergency departments for care available from their GP practice. But it added: ‘Practices are working at and beyond full capacity which has led to unprecedented levels of burnout, sick leave and tiredness amongst GPs.
‘General practice has been consistently underfunded over the last 10 years. Currently 90% of NHS contacts happen within primary care for less than 10% of the total budget. We desperately need a huge funding increase to aid much needed innovation, improvements in IT and infrastructure, and to increase staffing levels.’
The letter called for reduced bureaucracy, measures to address GP burnout and staff retention, and a review into access ‘so we can work towards finding a solution that involves the whole health service working together’.