Doctors have mounted a backlash against orders to see patients face-to-face, with their union passing a vote of no confidence in NHS leaders.
On Thursday, the British Medical Association’s (BMA) GP committee said medics had been let down by NHS England’s senior officials after patients were told they had the right to see GPs in person.
The U-turn last week came after the Patients’ Association and the Royal College of GPs raised concerns about the NHS proposal for “total triage”.
The Telegraph had been inundated with letters from readers describing problems accessing GP care – with one likening their local surgery to Fort Knox – after it highlighted the situation.
But doctors’ unions on Thursday turned on health officials for the change of stance, passing a motion of no confidence in the leadership of NHS England.
The BMA said the change by health officials was “tone deaf”, suggesting it had been issued in reaction to media coverage “rather than based on the needs of the profession”.
Pressure group GP Survival had already called for the resignation of Dr Nikki Kanani, the NHS England medical director for primary care, saying the letter she signed along with director of primary care Ed Waller was “insulting” to doctors.
In the letter, health officials had said: “GP practices must all ensure they are offering face-to-face appointments.
“While the expanded use of video, online and telephone consultations can be maintained where patients find benefit from them, this should be done alongside a clear offer of appointments in person.
“Practices should respect preferences for face-to-face care unless there are good clinical reasons to the contrary, for example the presence of Covid symptoms.”
On Thursday, the BMA GP committee’s online meeting passed a motion saying the decision to publish the letter last week was “unacceptable” and calling for a public explanation.
Medics said they were “outraged” by NHS England’s lack of understanding of the pressures facing general practice.
It came as Office for National Statistics figures for April showed deaths in England are the lowest since mortality rates started being recorded in 2001.
Dr Richard Vautrey, the BMA GP committee England chairman, said tens of thousands of GPs felt “anger, frustration and disappointment” about the way they had been treated by health officials, accusing them of failing to “recognise and celebrate” the contribution GPs had made to the response to the pandemic.
Dr Vautrey said the letter last week was “the final straw for many hard-working GPs, who have gone above and beyond over the last year”.
The union said advising GPs to see more patients face-to-face, without extra support on guidance on how to protect against infection, was “at best nonsense, but at worst extremely dangerous”.
“We know that some patients are frustrated at long waits for treatment or being unable to get a face-to-face appointment when they’d prefer one,” Dr Vautrey said.
“GPs everywhere share that frustration. This is not the fault of individual practices or doctors, and instead of issuing tone deaf letters, in what seems to be a reaction to media coverage, rather than based on the needs of the profession.”
The motion calls for formal action by the BMA to escalate concerns, including a meeting with Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary. It says all formal meetings between the union and NHS England should be ceased until steps have been taken to restore the committee’s confidence in senior figures at NHS England.
On Thursday, Dr Kanani published a blog stressing that GPs’ “dedication and hard work has not gone unnoticed”.
She said: “However, we need to bring patients with us, and although we know over 50 per cent of appointments are now face-to-face, and as GP teams you have been working constantly throughout, some patients have still struggled to get access to their GP. Both Healthwatch and the Patients’ Association have reported challenges which we cannot ignore.”