Northern Ireland news

GP shortages force closure of Beldoc for third weekend running as fears grow about impact on A&E

The Beldoc out-of-hours GP service has been suspended for third weekend running
Seanín Graham

WORKFORCE shortages are forcing the suspension of a Belfast out-of-hours GP service for the third consecutive weekend as concerns mount about the impact on A&E departments.

The 'Beldoc' base in the north of the city will close between 1pm and midnight tomorrow, while on Sunday it will not operate between 11am and 6pm, the Belfast trust has confirmed.

A trust spokesman said they were unable to "maximise rota coverage" leading to the "unfortunate" decision to close the Crumlin road base for periods over the weekend.

The Irish News has learned that when the out-of-hours Beldoc telephone lines re-opened last Sunday at 6pm, there was a "deluge" of calls - with one medic doing ringbacks and phone triage until 3am.

While reduced cover has led to suspended GP services in more rural areas over the past two years - particularly across the southern and western trusts - this is the first time it has happened in Belfast.

Earlier this week, a leading GP warned the continuing development will "inevitably" have a knock-on effect on numbers showing up to hospital A&E units in Belfast, which are experiencing a major spike in attendances and delays.

Dr Alan Stout of the British Medical Association also said that higher pay rates for GPs choosing to work in hospital care centres' and Covid centres - at almost £90 per hour - have led some to choose these as an alternative to Beldoc shifts.

Growing numbers of Belfast GPs are heading towards retirement while the workforce has also dramatically changed with more working on a part-time basis.

A trust spokesman said yesterday it has amended its out-of-hours contingency plan for terminally ill patients and some other patients "to ensure that even when any base is closed, a GP will be available at all times".

"This will be to support the closed base in dealing with vulnerable patients such as palliative care and those experiencing an acute mental health crisis," he said.

"In addition, they will be available to provide support and prescriptions for our community nursing colleagues and other health professionals."

Patients in need of "urgent care" are "advised to make contact with the urgent care centre at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH)".

The RVH urgent care centre has been running for more than six months. It was set up to triage those patients who would have normally attended A&E with urgent but "not life-threatening" illness or injuries - and who still may be transferred there for emergency care following assessment.

The centre, which is located close to the main A&E, is not run on a 24-hour basis. It is staffed by hospital doctors, GPs and nurses.

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