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"We were never closed": GPs reveal how they have battled to support patients through pandemic

Practices in the Vale of York ask for public support amid surge in demand for appointments as nation emerges from lockdown

GPs in the Vale of York who are tackling an "unprecedented rise in demand" for their services as the nation emerges from lockdown have revealed how they've been working in incredibly tough circumstances to care for their patients during the pandemic.

And while shops, pubs and leisure facilities have been taking the padlocks off their doors, the message from general practice is clear: "We were never closed."

Primary care staff are currently facing a higher demand for appointments than before the pandemic struck – while continuing to play a leading role in "the most widespread and successful vaccination campaign in UK history".

Now staff at GP practices in the Vale of York are asking local communities to support them and relieve the pressure by making the right choices about their care.

They are dealing with a backlog of demand from patients who were reluctant to contact their practice during lockdown, as well as those waiting for delayed hospital appointments and treatment. There is also a backlog for routine health checks where social distancing plus infection prevention and control measures have meant appointments take longer, reducing the number of available slots.

Many practices have found that their capacity to see patients has been affected by staff contracting COVID-19 and having to self-isolate. Front-line health and care staff were and continue to be at significantly higher risk of contracting the virus.

However, GPs and other practice clinicians have been seeing patients face to face when needed since the first lockdown in March 2020 – using a system of online and phone triage to ensure they were directed to the most appropriate care and helping to keep practices COVID-secure, as directed by NHS England.

'Challenging'

Dr Abbie Brooks, a GP partner at Priory Medical Group's Park View Surgery in York, said: "The last 14 months have been difficult for all of us. From a personal perspective it has been one of the busiest and most challenging periods of my working life.

"A lot of people have asked when we will re-open but the answer I tell everyone, we never closed. A recent communication to GPs from NHS England, reported via the mainstream media, may lead you to believe we haven’t been seeing any patients in our surgeries. This is simply not true."

Dr Brooks said many patients find it most convenient to call their practice for an appointment, but are often left frustrated by a long wait on "extremely busy" phone lines.

She added: "My suggestion? Look on your practice website; is there the option of getting in touch online to request an appointment? This can be a really efficient way of getting in touch; you will be asked some questions about your clinical problem and that will be sent directly to the practice team to action. You may then be sent a text or phoned by your surgery to take things further, possibly to a face-to-face consultation depending on your symptoms.

"Quite often, you can fill these forms in 24 hours a day so you don’t need to do a mad rush at 8am to try and secure an appointment over the phone.

"Some patients might not need a face-to-face appointment with a GP; their problem might be better addressed by talking with a pharmacist, practice nurse or physiotherapist. Using triage helps us direct patients to the most appropriate primary care clinician."

'Unprecedented rise in demand'

Dr Chris Stanley, a GP partner at Haxby Group in York and a member of NHS Vale of York CCG's Governing body, said: "GP practices across the Vale are facing an unprecedented rise in demand – this is set against a backdrop of recovery from the COVID pandemic, the largest NHS vaccination campaign in history (75% of which has been delivered by GP practices and their teams) and a diminishing GP workforce.

"Despite these huge challenges, GP practices are responding and providing a safe and quality service for our residents. People may also have longer to wait to see their GP than they are used to, but we still want patients to come forward with any symptoms that they are concerned about, particularly those symptoms that can be signs of early cancer.

"Just as throughout the pandemic we need patients to work with the NHS to ensure all those people with health concerns can be appropriately assessed and receive the advice they need."

His fellow Haxby Group GP partner Professor Mike Holmes, who is Vice Chair (Membership) at the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: "My practice has never closed its doors and we have had more patient encounters than in the period before the pandemic. We have looked after those who were shielding, the most vulnerable in our community in care homes and adapted to new ways of working to ensure the service kept going. Our GP teams have worked on bank holidays and continued to be in our practices throughout the lockdown, accepting the risks that come with that.

"Prior to the pandemic the levels of stress and fatigue within primary care were already higher than the national average. I can guarantee they are much higher now. On top of this general practice has led the most widespread and successful vaccination campaign in UK history.

"So when the headlines suggest we are failing our patients, it hurts and it’s simply inaccurate. As I have said all along the way, we will get through this is by working together."

'We can all play our part'

Stephanie Porter, Interim Executive Director Primary Care and Population Health at NHS Vale of York Clinical Commissioning Group, said: "While lockdown restrictions are easing and we're all looking forward to being able to do more of the things we did before the pandemic, the way in which patients access general practice has changed and will remain so for some time – with the primary intention of protecting staff and patients from exposure to COVID.

"We can all play our part in reducing pressure on services by ensuring we make the right choices about our care. We continue to encourage people to use 111 first for urgent care so that they can be directed to the best local service for them, and 999/accident and emergency departments only for medical emergencies such as life-threatening illness or injuries.

"Pharmacists are highly trained health professionals who can provide confidential, expert advice and treatment for a range of common illnesses, such as headaches, fevers, upset stomachs and minor rashes. Many pharmacies are open on evenings and on bank holidays.

"While under pressure, your local GP practice is there if you need it and it is essential that you do not delay seeking help with symptoms you are worried may be a sign of cancer or other serious illness."

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