Pandemic Demands and Care Backlog in GP Practices 'Unsustainable'

Peter Russell

January 28, 2022

GP practices in England dealt with 366.7 million appointments in 2021, as delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations increased their workload, according to official data.

The number of appointments was 17.5% higher than for 2019, the last calendar year before the pandemic, NHS digital figures showed.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the statistics highlighted the pressures on GPs, and were "simply not sustainable".

GP practice workload in 2021 included 55.3 million appointments for COVID vaccinations. After these were excluded from the data, the number of appointments for the year was 311.5 million – just 0.17% higher than in 2019.

Appointments in 2021, including for COVID vaccination delivered by practices and through primary care networks, reached a monthly high of 34.6 million in November, before dipping to 29.1 million in December.

Despite the shift towards remote appointments since early in the pandemic, GP surgeries delivered 178.8 million face-to-face consultations last year, accounting for 57.5% of appointments, compared with 242.0 million in 2019, or 81.5%.

Telephone appointments in 2021 accounted for 38.2% of consultations last year, almost triple the 13.4% in the previous year.

The proportion of patients in England seen on the same day in 2021 was 45.1%, down from 49.3% in 2020.

Shortage of Fully Qualified GPs

The BMA said that the latest data illustrated the immense backlog facing general practice.

Dr Farah Jameel, GPC England chair at the BMA, commented: "On the 13th December, the Prime Minister put out a call to arms, making the booster campaign the national priority in the fight against Omicron. General practice responded to the call and delivered 3.9 million vaccination appointments that month.

"We now know that this booster wall of defence kept our sickest and most vulnerable safe and out of harm’s way. Yet again, GPs and their teams vaccinated this country out of crisis."

GP appointment figures for December were "a staggering 20% higher than 2 years ago", she said, making the current situation "simply not sustainable, especially when we consider that there are the equivalent of 1756 fewer fully qualified full-time GPs in the country compared with 2015".

Dr Jameel added: "As well as creating and delivering solutions to bolster the workforce, Government must urgently scrap unnecessary administrative tasks, and other unachievable targets, if we're to stand a fighting chance of getting on top of current demand."

Next Pay Deal 'Must Reflect Years of Real-term Cuts'

The BMA said the increased workload due to COVID-19 was reflected in its submission to the Review Body on Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration (DDRB) that will recommend a pay award for the next financial year, following this year's 3% increase in England.

A BMA spokesperson said: "After having given their all over the course of the pandemic, doctors were rightly dismayed last year to have their efforts so undervalued by the DDRB and the UK Governments, and with no attempt made to rectify a decade's worth of real-terms pay cuts.

"With inflation continuing to increase at pace, the BMA will be pushing for a pay increase this year that not only keeps up with the rising cost of living, but also seeks to address years of pay erosion.

"We have now submitted our own evidence and specific asks to the review body for the 2022/23 round."

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