GP 'Covid' assessment centres to open amid fears of protective mask and clothing supplies for frontline staff

Concerns have been raised by GPs about the impact of shortages of specialist masks and clothing for frontline staff testing for coronavirus
Seanín Graham

NEW GP 'Covid centres' are to open "within days" in Northern Ireland amid fears about major shortages of protective clothing and masks for medics assessing patients in the community.

Several GPs have contacted The Irish News since the weekend about a severe lack of 'Personal Protection Equipment' (PPE) for their current practices and raised concerns about being put at "severe risk of infection" in the new specialist centres.

GPs under the age of 58 will staff these premises and will see those patients who are "symptomatic of Covid-19 and who are at higher risk of complications", according to health service documents seen by The Irish News.

Sources say some buildings have been identified - such as Beech Hall wellbeing centre in west Belfast - and will be operational "within days".

It is expected they will open from 8am to 10pm seven days a week "in the first instance" and will provide "assessment, home visiting, ongoing care and management of patients who have confirmed or suspected Covid-19".

Read More: Union calls for more testing and protective equipment as nurses face 'catastrophe'

Fittings and measurements of doctors took place yesterday at the Health and Social Care Board offices in Belfast city centre yesterday - but they were sent away without masks.

When asked about supply issue and GP concerns, a Board spokeswoman told The Irish News that doctors had attended their offices for "FFP3 mask fit testing only"and "not for supply of PPE".

She added: "All GP Practices will be supplied of PPE by Wednesday 25 March 2020 and have been notified of this."

New GP 'Covid centres' will be assessing at symptomatic patients in the community

One west Belfast GP said his practice, which has 9,000 patients, had only received six PPE "suits" and masks for doctors.

"These are single use only so one of our staff had to try the PPE on to make sure it was right - so that has now brought us down to five," he said.

"This PPE is manufactured in China and there are issues globally with supply. Some GPs are very worried they will be on the frontline assessing patients while not having the right protective clothing.

"There is also the issue of the backup support to staff these centres, including administration workers and practice managers, when they system is already stretched."

GP practices in the north are currently using telephone triage to assess patients.

Another Belfast GP,  Dr Michael McKenna, said there was an “expectation” that “all staff” in the new centres – not just doctors - would receive protective equipment on the same level as those working in frontline hospital care.

“The health and safety of our staff is paramount and we want a guarantee that we will have the same access to PPE as those working in A&E departments,” he said.

“We want that underwritten in the agreement as this is a multidisciplinary arrangement involving GPs, the trusts, the Board and the Department of Health.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said last night: "We are rapidly establishing Primary Care Covid-19 centres to manage the growth of cases in the community and to preserve essential GP services across Northern Ireland during the course of the pandemic. Further details will be announced this week."

Meanwhile, the department released a separate statement yesterday to address concerns across the entire system about shortages of protective clothing, stressing there had been "major efforts over recent days" to distribute "urgently required items such as facemasks, faceshields and visors".

"Northern Ireland's PPE stock includes equipment that had been stockpiled in the event of a no-deal Brexit and for emergencies such as this. We have been using that stock to meet current demand.

"Every effort is being made and will continue to be made to secure replacement and alternative PPE stock from all sources.

"We will also keep our supply and stock management systems under constant review, to ensure timely distribution where it's needed."

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