GP appointments were on the decline in March as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, according to official data.
In England, the reduction over the course of the month was close to one-third, NHS Digital data suggested.
It comes as NHS England’s primary care lead said she was ‘really worried’ for patients who do not have Covid who are currently staying away from GP practices.
A report from NHS Digital said: ‘The total number of appointments recorded in GP practice systems has declined throughout March, from 6,026,140 in the first seven days of the month to 4,225,502 in the last seven days – a reduction of almost 30%.’
The NHS Digital report said: ‘The outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) has led to unprecedented changes in the work and behaviour of general practices and subsequently the GP appointments data within this publication.’
It added the caveat that because the ‘variation in approach to appointment management between practices is likely to be greater than usual’ data quality would have been ‘impacted’.
NHS Digital also said it was ‘important to note that this decline does not necessarily imply that GPs are offering and booking fewer appointments overall’.
The report said: ‘Practices are likely to be operating very differently in response to the pandemic and consequently may be recording appointments in different ways. One such change could be an increase in the use of list appointments, in which several patients are contacted but only one appointment is entered into the appointment book.
‘Appointments conducted online or via video may also not be routinely captured in appointment books, so a move to these types of appointments could explain some of the observed dip in appointment numbers.’
Speaking in a webinar for GPs yesterday evening, NHS England primary care medical director Dr Nikita Kanani said: ‘I’m really worried about people who don’t have Covid and how they are not accessing care in the way that they would have done pre-Covid.
‘You will have seen it yourself in your practices and in your local systems, but for particular conditions and particularly for our children, or our patients with worrisome symptoms suggestive of cancer, they’re not coming in.’
Dr Kanani said NHS England has ‘done some polling’ looking into why, finding that it is ‘for a mixture of reasons’.
‘They don’t want to be a burden on general practice, they don’t want to risk an infection or infecting somebody else – and we need to reassure the public that it’s okay to get in touch again and to ask us for help,’ Dr Kanani said.
It comes as research from University College London (UCL) and DATA-CAN, published earlier this week, suggested that cancer deaths in England may increase by at least 20% as a result of the Covid-19 emergency.