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Widespread confusion over face masks in general practice

by Sofia Lind
15 June 2020

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NHS England and Public Health England have sparked widespread confusion among GPs today by giving seemingly contradictory advice on face coverings in general practice.

NHS England said in a system letter last week that the guidance for all staff and visitors to hospital to wear a face covering from today would also apply to primary care settings.

NHS England said Public Health England would publish the guidance but the update made by PHE only refers to hospital settings.

Primary care medical director for NHS England Dr Nikki Kanani added to the confusion yesterday via a GP email bulletin and Twitter post alluding to guidance having changed, however linking only to the hospital guidance and previous guidance for GP settings which did not appear to be updated at all.

GPs responding to her post expressed their confusion when they were unable to locate any updated guidance for GP practice settings.

Asked to clarify the situation, spokespeople for NHS England told Management in Practice’s sister publication, Pulse, that PHE has a clear process for deciding on whether further guidance is needed which includes an evidence review, clear rationale and agreement at a government scientific committee. When pressed on whether the guidance had changed they directed Pulse to PHE.

Asked if they wanted to make a statement, an NHS England spokesperson said: ‘Public Health England continues to set the advice for PPE usage including in primary care settings, which we will distribute as usual.’

Meanwhile, a PHE spokesperson said NHS England had to explain the guidance as it had come from them.

The BMA joined the calls for clarity, with council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul accusing the Government of failing to properly plan for the change to guidance.

He said: ‘It is imperative that we do all we can to prevent the spread of infection in healthcare settings, so that patients and visitors can attend hospital and GP practices without fear of contamination.  The wearing of masks by staff and face coverings by the public will be key to enabling this. 

‘It is clear though that the Government has failed to properly plan for these changes which are now in effect and have left providers of NHS services confused and unprepared for how this will be implemented on the frontline.

‘Furthermore, it is still unclear as to whether mandatory face coverings will extend to patients attending GP practices.’