NHS England has written to all GP practices to ‘remind’ them patients must be offered face-to-face appointments when they need them.
The letter asked practices to ‘ensure they have made clear through communication with the public – whether online or through verbal conversations – that face-to-face appointments continue to be on offer, where clinically appropriate’, NHS England said.
The letter included a ‘communication toolkit’ to support practices in ‘highlighting their availability with the local population’, it added.
NHS England said this ‘reminder’ comes as NHS Digital data estimates that half of 102m GP consultations taking place between March and July were via telephone or video.
It also said research suggests two thirds of the public were happy to have a GP consultation remotely.
But NHS England medical director for primary care Dr Nikki Kanani said: ‘The last few months has seen general practice playing a vital role in the fight against coronavirus, adapting quickly to significantly increase the availability of video and phone consultations and offer safe face to face care when needed.
‘While many people, particularly those most vulnerable to Covid-19 want the convenience of a consultation over the phone or video, the NHS has been and will continue to offer face to face appointments and I would urge anyone who feels they need medical support to come forward so they can get the care, support and advice they need – the NHS is here for you.’
NHS England wrote to GPs at the end of July to say they could not decline to see patients who refuse to wear a face mask, and that practices could be in breach of contract if they did not see patients face to face.
It comes as health secretary Matt Hancock earlier this summer suggested all GP consultations could be done remotely in the future.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government announced plans last week to make GP consultations via video the ‘default option’.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘GPs have been working incredibly hard to keep their services as accessible as possible during the Covid-19 pandemic, with most offering virtual triage as the first point of contact in order to help keep their workforce and communities safe. This is exactly what the Government has been encouraging them to do.
‘This does not mean practices have stopped face-to-face appointments, and they continue to be offered where safe and necessary. Any inference that in-person consultations were put on hold does a great disservice to the committed GPs who have continued to go to work throughout the pandemic.’
He added that ‘practice workload has also significantly increased as a result of the ongoing impact of the pandemic on other NHS services and the unprecedented number of people waiting for postponed procedures’.
And said: ‘NHSEI and Government have so far failed to recognise the significant impact this is having on general practice and should be tackling this as a priority.’
Last month, GPs – including Dr Kanani – denounced comments made by a national newspaper columnist who said she ‘heard a rumour that GP surgeries not reopening until March’.
A version of this story first appeared in our sister title Pulse.