Northern Ireland news

Unprecedented 'open letter' sent by GPs to health minister over Covid Centre concerns

GP John McSparran, who is based in a practice in the Glens of Antrim, is among those who drafted the open letter to health minister Robin Swann Picture by Hugh Russell.
Seanín Graham

More than one hundred GPs from across Northern Ireland have signed an 'open letter' to health minister Robin Swann in which they express their "serious concerns" about continuing to staff under-used Covid Centres at a time of severe NHS pressures.

In an unprecedented move, the medics - who represent practices from Derry to Newry to Enniskillen to Ballycastle and from Omagh to Belfast - say they are taking the action to "protect the interests of our patients" as the north emerges from the first wave of the pandemic.

Dr John McSparran from Co Antrim is among those who drafted the letter and said it was the first time in a career spanning almost 30 years he has written to a minister.

READ THE LETTER IN FULL: GPs question benefits of Covid centres which are 'taking them away from General Practice'

"It's an unusual thing but we felt we had to do it in a public way because essentially we felt our frustrations are not being meant by our professional representatives," he told The Irish News.

"We understand the system needed to do something at the outset of the pandemic but it’s clear now the Covid Centres are an enormous drain on resources from the NHS and also from our own practices, which are now experiencing increasing demand.

"We certainly will be sending it to the minister but it's an open letter because it’s important for the general public to be aware of this drain - yet they can’t get their urgent and red flag referrals sorted out through the NHS."

There are 10 GP-led Covid centres which were set up in late March an apart of an emergency 'surge' planning response to the pandemic. No testing is provided at the facilities, which instead assess suspected coronavirus patients and refer them to hospital or send them home to self-isolate.

Numbers attending have plummeted in recent weeks, while GPs are still "forced" to provide cover.

Department of Health officials have said the only way the centres can be 'stood down' similar to the Nightingale hospital is through ministerial approval.

In a statement the department said the facilities "continue to play a key role" in ensuring that patients with coronavirus symptoms can be assessed and treated by a GP.

"It is likely that there will be a requirement for Covid-19 Centres until there is a vaccine or appropriate treatment for the disease," a department spokeswoman said.

Beech Hall Health and Wellbeing Centre on the Andersonstown Road is among the 10 designated Covid-19 assessment centres in the north. Picture Mal McCann.

The GPs' open letter disagrees with this view and points to the numbers of asymptomatic patients.

It states: "We are repeatedly told that Covid Centres need to continue to ensure practices are kept clean of Covid infection, despite the reality that most infections are transmitted in the pre-symptomatic phase or by asymptomatic patients.

"Given that patients with no symptoms of Covid infection could still have other symptoms or signs of serious illness that must be addressed, the raison d’etre for Covid centres no longer exists."

Data is "not held" by heath authorities on the total number of patients attending the centres or doctors providing cover. Nurses and administration staff also work shifts. The department last week confirmed a £1.5m spend to date on the initiative.

The GPs' open letter refers to evidence of medics providing cover when there are little or no referrals. It also questions running costs.

Earlier this week, health minister Robin Swann published a plan on rebuilding the health service, in which the central role of GPs was acknowledged.

Dr McSparran said they were already aware that Covid centre rotas had been drawn up for summer months.

The open letter outlines fears for the future of the sector:

"This will not be acceptable to vast majority of GPs and goodwill has already been significantly eroded...We need to get back to managing our patients and addressing their concerns as only we know how. Let us get on with our job and get back to our patients."

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