GPs told to drop routine over-75s health checks to speed up Covid booster rollout

·5-min read
Minor surgery can be stopped, but will still be funded, as long as GPs spend the time they would have spent on the procedures administering vaccines, according to the new rules - SolStock/iStockphoto
Minor surgery can be stopped, but will still be funded, as long as GPs spend the time they would have spent on the procedures administering vaccines, according to the new rules - SolStock/iStockphoto

GPs have been told they can stop carrying out routine health checks on over-75s in order to speed up the rollout of booster vaccines.

A deal negotiated with doctors’ unions means that thousands of GPs will continue to be paid for such duties regardless, as well as receiving bonuses for administering jabs.

Last weekend, Boris Johnson called for the rollout of boosters to be accelerated in order to strengthen defences against the omicron variant.

All eligible over-18s have now been promised a third jab, with the minimum gap between doses reduced from six to three months.

However, a letter from senior health officials, published on Friday, revealed that it could take another week before the changes begin to be introduced.

The timescale, after almost a week of negotiations with the British Medical Association (BMA), means that the rollout is unlikely to reach cohorts below the age of 40 before Christmas.

It comes as documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) predict that it will take “at least a further five years for Covid-19 to settle to a predictable endemic state”.

The papers by Spi-M, a sub-group of Sage, suggest that “active management” including booster jabs and testing could be needed for up to a decade.

“Repeated vaccination may be required to maintain sufficient vaccine-derived immunity for future Covid-19 control,” the paper stated. “It is a realistic possibility that, over the next five years, there will be epidemics of sufficient size to overwhelm health and care services.”

Health officials have been locked in talks with the BMA since ministers announced plans to speed up the distribution of booster jabs.

Earlier this week, Dr Farah Jameel, the chairman of the BMA’s GP committee, said that family doctors did not have “any capacity” to help with the rollout, urging health officials to free them from other requirements.

On Friday night, health officials announced that terms had been agreed, with GPs told that until April they will have their “income protected” for much of their routine work, regardless of whether it is carried out.

Annual health checks for the over-75s, which assess physical health, mobility and memory, are among those which GPs are allowed to stop carrying out, along with monitoring of millions of people with health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

Minor surgery can also be stopped, but will still be funded, as long as GPs spend the time they would have spent on the procedures administering vaccines, according to the new rules.

Under the deal, family doctors will still be paid for such work with “income protected”, so they are rewarded based on the “historical” workload they had previously achieved on these fronts.

In addition, those who take part in the booster rollout will receive £15 per jab, with rates of £20 on Sundays and weekends, and £30 for home visits.

Earlier this week, the head of the NHS revealed that the rates had been increased as part of efforts to ensure GPs were “properly rewarded” for their efforts.

On Friday night, patients’ groups raised concerns that the changes would worsen access to GPs for patients seeking help for medical reasons other than Covid.

Dennis Reed, the director of the elderly campaign group Silver Voices, said: “I am very worried about this. We have had all this talk about improving access to face-to-face appointments with GPs, but now instead they can stop carrying out health checks and still be paid for them. It looks like the BMA has ministers and officials over a barrel.”

Mr Reed questioned why GPs were being offered “money for nothing,” on top of funding for every jab administered, asking: “Where are the patients in all this?”

It comes amid growing public concern about difficulties accessing face-to-face appointments with family doctors. The matter saw the BMA threaten industrial action following a series of interventions by ministers, promising patients the right to see a GP in person.

On Wednesday, Sajid Javid said “there was nothing more important” than the booster rollout as he confirmed that he was “revisiting” the workload of family doctors, while pledging to increase the number of patients being seen face to face.

On Friday night, the Health Secretary wrote an open “thank you” letter to all GPs, applauding them for their “outstanding” care for patients and support delivering the vaccination programme.

Family doctors were heavily involved in the initial vaccination programme for Covid. However, many declined to take part in the administration of boosters, saying that the workload was too onerous, amid growing public concern about difficulties accessing GP appointments for other reasons.

Currently, the programme is administering just 2.6 million vaccines a week. Ministers have said they want to see it return to previous rates of more than 3.5 million jabs per week.

The letter to GP practices and NHS trusts, from Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of the NHS, follows promises by senior officials to recruit 10,000 vaccinators, with volunteers urged to come forward to speed up the rollout of boosters. Some areas have been forced to cancel jabs for want of volunteers, it emerged on Friday.

In the letter, officials also urged clinical students and senior staff with a medical background to come forward to join efforts, with every NHS hospital trust asked if it could offer jabs to the public.

Dr Gary Howsam, the vice-chairman of external affairs at the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “These are sensible, temporary measures that will address some of the bureaucratic demands on practices and have minimal impact on the care patients receive in general practice, allowing GPs and our teams to focus their efforts where currently most clinically necessary.”

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