GPs in England will be told to scrap the 2-metre rule in their surgeries as part of a government drive to ensure they get back to seeing more patients face-to-face, it has been reported.
The move is part of a package of measures to restore pre-pandemic levels of in-person access to family doctors and relieve the intense pressures on GP services, according to the Daily Mail.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, will reportedly shortly unveil the planned changes after weeks of rising tension with GPs concerned at his insistence that they should increase face-to-face appointments.
Javid and GP leaders have clashed in recent weeks over his insistence that family doctors should see many more patients in person because the threat from Covid has eased.
GPs are likely to resist any attempt by Javid to seek an end to the 2-metre social distancing rule in surgeries. The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) recently rejected any easing of infection-control procedures, which it said were vital to prevent patients and surgery staff from getting Covid.
Prof Martin Marshall, the college’s chair, last month specifically ruled out any changes in the way GPs run their surgeries after Javid said it was “high time” family doctors began seeing more patients in person because life in the UK was “almost back to completely normal”.
He told MPs: “It is high time that GPs started operating in the way they did before the pandemic and offering face-to-face appointments to everyone who would like one.”
Some family doctors have linked recent comments by Javid, including those, to the rise in abuse, hostility and assaults from patients that some family doctors have been experiencing.
The health secretary’s comments sparked an angry reaction from the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, which negotiates GPs’ terms and conditions. It accused Javid of failing to understand the complexity of the challenges family doctors face as a result of rising demand for care, ongoing shortages in the GP workforces and having to keep their premises Covid-free.
Dr Richard Vautrey, the chair of the BMA’s GPs committee, said Javid’s call was “as impractical as it is unworkable”.
He said: “These comments show how far removed the secretary of state is from the reality of what is happening in GP practices.
“Life is absolutely not back to normal,” added Vautrey, a GP in Leeds. “The number of Covid-related deaths and people in hospital continue to rise and there are now just 0.46 GPs per 1,000 patients in England, down from 0.52 in 2015. To suggest a return to a pre-pandemic way of working is as impractical as it is unworkable for GPs.”
Marshall also recently criticised calls for GPs to offer more face-to-face appointments as “a misconception” after the latest NHS figures showed that 58% of patients in England were seeing their GP or a member of the practice team such as a nurse in person.
“The narrative that remote consultations are substandard compared with seeing a GP face-to-face is concerning,” Marshall added. Some patients prefer telephone or video appointments because they are more convenient or offer more privacy, he said.
The Mail also reports that Javid will seek to reduce GPs’ workloads by telling hospital doctors to write more prescriptions and “fit notes” themselves for patients who are being discharged rather than expecting family doctors to do that – moves which the BMA and RCGP have called for.
GP leaders have also asked Javid to set up a helpline to answer patients’ queries about Covid vaccination and ensure hospitals start answering patients’ questions about when they will be having a planned procedure, to stop family doctors fielding calls from patients about either matter.
It is unclear to what extent Javid can order GP surgeries to make certain changes as they are private businesses and GPs and their staff are not employed directly by the NHS.
Any changes would also apply only in England as health is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.