‘Dismayed and disappointed’: GPs denounce Javid’s comments that appointment shortage is overburdening A&Es

A war of words between GPs and Sajid Javid has heated up as doctors dispute health secretary’s ‘unsubstantiated’ claims about overloaded emergency departments.

Sajid Javid comes under fire by GPs

Family doctors from the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) have hit out at Sajid Javid over his claims that overloaded A&E departments are due to a lack of GP appointments.

In early November, the health secretary told MPs that a lack of access to GPs, including face-to-face appointments, has put pressure on Accident and Emergency departments. According to Javid, part of the reason patients were visiting emergency departments unnecessarily, was due to “not being able to get through to their primary care services in the usual way.”

The comments were made when the health secretary was being questioned by MPs on the Commons Health and Social Care Committee about allegations made from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) that online appointments with GPs have resulted in increased demand on A&E.

Javid had said there were figures that showed a “significant portion of people are turning up for emergency care when they could have actually gone to their GP.”

He added: “That is not the fault of those people at all. They have stayed away from the NHS when they were asked to, they now want to be seen and that is right … but part of the reason I think people are turning up in A&E perhaps when they don’t need it is because they’re not able to get through to their primary care services in the usual way.”

When pressed about whether a lack of GP availability had led to growing demand for A&E care, the health secretary said: “I think that that general point is correct.”

GPs hit back

Many GPs have refuted Javid’s comments. Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, is among those disproving the claims, acknowledging how the proportion of patients to GPs has risen by more than 10%, and that doctors are “burning out and working in conditions that are unsafe for their patients.”

 “Reasons for mounting pressures on A&E are many, but we’re unaware of any hard evidence that significantly links them to GP access.

“Far from intensifying pressures on emergency departments, GPs and our teams make the vast majority of NHS patient contacts and in doing so our service alleviates pressures elsewhere in the health service, including A&E.

“General practice needs to be sufficiently resourced and supported, so that it can continue to do so.

“It isn’t surprising to hear that the government are not on track to keep their pledge of 6,000 more GPs by 2024 – this has been clear for some time – but it is disappointing,” Marshall added.

‘Dismayed and disappointed’

Professor Marshall wrote the letter to Sajid Javid, reiterating the baselessness of his comments. In the letter, Marshall said that the Royal College of GPs’ 54,000 members are “dismayed and disappointed at the media coverage of your evidence session, which suggested that the lack of face-to-face GP appointments was placing additional strain on accident and emergency departments.”

Heated public war on words

The fresh dispute follows an earlier heated public war of words between GPs and the health secretary after Javid told family doctors to ramp up in-person consultations.

In October, the government announced that GP practices in England will receive a share of £250m “winter access fund” boost but only if they increase face-to-face appointments.

GPs would only have access to additional staff they vitally need, including locum GPs, podiatrists, and physiotherapists, on the condition they provide more in-person consultations.

2-metre social distancing to be scrapped

The announcement came as the government prepares to abolish the 2-metre social distancing rule in GP surgeries. The scrapping of what has been a watertight health and safety measure from practically the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, is part of a series of measures coming from government to designed to restore in-person access to family doctors.

The RCGP rejected the proposal, saying such infection-control procedures are vital in preventing patients and surgery staff from contracting Covid.

Further friction was triggered between health professionals and Sajid Javid when the health secretary rejected the British Medical Association and the RCGPs’ proposals to reduce their workloads. The proposals included the creation of a new national helpline to answer patients’ queries about Covid vaccination and to equip hospitals with systems to inform patients of when their planned surgery is going ahead, in a bid to reduce calls made to GPs.

The health secretary’s recent comments and proposals have sparked a hostile reaction from the doctors’ union the British Medical Association (BMA). The union accused the health secretary of failing to understand the complexity of the challenges GPs currently face in the wake of the pandemic, shortages of workforces at surgeries, and rising demand for care.

The escalating dispute surrounding the current plight of GPs comes at a time when Covid death rates are climbing in UK and warnings are being made to the government that the NHS is reaching an unsafe “tipping point.”  

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.

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