Northern Ireland news

Leak reveals 'warning' letter from Richard Pengelly to GPs refusing to work in Covid centres

Richard Pengelly, Permanent Secretary of Department of Health, is one of the most powerful figures in the north's health service.
Seanín Graham

A LEAKED letter sent by the top civil servant at the Department of Health to doctors unwilling to work in 'Covid centres' has warned the decision could impact on their GP contracts.

Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary at the department, issued the correspondence last Friday to a "small number of practices" and asked them to "urgently reconsider" their refusal to do shifts at the centres, which assess suspected coronavirus patients.

Sources say medics are "alarmed" by the letter with the implication being the terms of their employment could be affected.

GPs in more rural areas have spoken privately of the difficulty in working shifts at the centres due to small numbers of partners in practices - particularly single-handed ones - and being exposed to risk through PPE shortages.

It is understood that some medics have sought legal advice on the issue.

Mr Pengelly's letter, seen by The Irish News, warns that those doctors who do not participate in the scheme will need to provide the department with evidence as to how they are delivering patient care.

He wrote: "We judge that the Primary Care Covid-19 centres are an essential tool in fighting this pandemic. In the absence of your participation in this project, you will need to provide us with written assurance as to the care of your patients.

"Should this assurance not be forthcoming and sufficiently comprehensive, I will give further consideration to the imposition of a contract variation.

"This is in line with my duty to take all necessary steps during this pandemic to protect the public while also continuing to deliver essential noncovid services."

Around a dozen centres are currently operating across the north after the initiative rolled out last month.

Earlier this month the GP chair of the main trade union representing doctors in the north, the British Medical Association (BMA), insisted that no doctor would be "forced" to staff the units.

Dr Alan Stout told The Irish News that locums would be sought to provide cover, particularly in rural areas where staff are thinner on the ground and who have 'at risk' relatives or medical conditions themselves.

"We know there are doctors who shouldn't and won't be able to work for various reasons and it's about local ownership of the rota - so there's the availability of locums. Under no circumstances will somebody who isn't fit or able to work be asked to work in the centre," Dr Stout said.

However, one rural GP last night said there was "great difficulty" in finding locums and that the cost for the practice was high, with fees up to £100 per hour.

A spokesman for Department of Health said: “The letters to GPs are self-explanatory. A large majority of GPs are contributing to the vital work of the Covid-19 primary centres and our thanks go to each of them for their important contribution.”

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