The already perilous state of general practice in Northern Ireland is worsening further amid political standstill, the BMA has warned.
It comes as the first practice in Belfast has been forced to close after a retiring single-handed GP could not find anyone to take the business over.
Dr Alan Stout, deputy chair of GPC Northern Ireland said other practices in the capital had faced difficulties and a branch practice had recently closed but it had been possible to find solutions in the past.
Practices in the country have been under severe strain for a long time but until now it had been those in more rural areas who had been particularly hard hit.
‘It shows us that the problem is worse than even we anticipated,’ said Dr Stout.
‘General practice even in Belfast is struggling to get locums and any practice who has anyone leave or go off on long-term sick would be in great difficulty he said.’
The recently closed surgery is in a large health centre in East Belfast which also includes Dr Stout’s practice.
‘There were seven practices, one practice is combining with another so we have gone down to five practices in a couple of months,’ he said.
Although it is very hard to put an accurate figure on it, the GPC have warned that between 10 and 20 practices will close in the next year.
It comes as GPs warn that some patients are waiting two to three years for non-urgent referrals.
Dr Stout said there are solutions available in the shape of the GP Future Plan, which was signed off in December and an elective care plan finalised in January but there are no politicians to put them in place due to the collapse of the power sharing government.
The Northern Irish political turmoil began when the power sharing agreement fell apart in January, and an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place on 2 March.
Dr Stout said: ‘We need the politicians, without them these are just policy documents.’
The move, which will see GPs leave the NHS and potentially charging around £45 for appointments, will happen once 60% of the 343 practices in Northern Ireland sign up to hand back their contract.
Dr Stout said many patients were already opting to pay privately for specialist care because the NHS was not providing it.
‘In some areas, close to 50% of referrals are coming back asking for a private referral because waiting lists are too long.
‘These are people without health insurance opting to pay themselves, so we already have an element of a private service,’ he said.