The Government is considering introducing the ‘emergency registration’ of retired doctors as part of its new ‘battle plan’ against coronavirus (Covid-19).
The news comes as 35 people have now tested positive for the virus in the UK, including the first cases contracted in the UK.
Health secretary Matt Hancock announced over the weekend that the next phase of the Government’s response to the virus could see broader measures introduced to ‘relieve pressure on the NHS’.
These measures ‘could include looking at emergency registration of health professionals who have retired’, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
The introduction of emergency indemnity coverage for health care professionals ‘to provide care or diagnostic services’ is also being considered, the DHSC added.
Mr Hancock said: ‘The UK is a world leader in preparing for and managing disease outbreaks and I have every confidence in our nation’s ability to respond to the threat of Covid-19.
‘Public safety is our top priority. Our battleplan will ensure that as this escalates, every part of government is working together to share the responsibility of tackling the health, economic, and social impacts of Covid-19.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson added: ‘Coronavirus may very well be a challenge in the weeks and months ahead. But I have no doubt that with the help of the NHS and its incomparable staff this country will get through it – and beat it.’
It is understood that the Government is planning to publish an ‘action plan’ tomorrow.
However, GP leaders warned that retired doctors are likely to be among the most ‘at risk’ from contracting the virus.
BMA representative body chair Dr Helena McKeown said: ‘Retired doctors have a wealth of knowledge and expertise and some may well be able and willing to contribute their skills during emergencies.
‘However, much would depend on how long the doctor has been retired and what tasks they would be undertaking. For many there would of course be issues with GMC registration, indemnity and training that would need to be addressed.
‘Furthermore, bearing in mind many retired doctors’ ages, we must consider their own wellbeing and whether they would be putting themselves at risk by returning to work.’
RCGP joint honorary secretary Dr Jonathan Leach said: ‘Retired healthcare professionals have a huge amount to offer the health service, and many would do so willingly, but any drafting in of their skills to help deal with Covid-19 would need to be their choice and with their full understanding of the situation and any associated risks, and that every effort is made to ensure they are protected.
‘We need to see the details of how this plan would work, but it might be that retired medics are not treating Covid-19 patients face-to-face, but helping out in other ways that increase capacity in the system, for example doing telephone and online consultations, providing aftercare for patients after treatment or providing clinical expertise on NHS 111. There will also be logistical issues, such as getting people back on medical or nursing registers, that would need to be thought through.’
Dr Andrew Green, recently-retired GP and former BMA GP Committee prescribing lead, told Pulse that bringing in recently-retired GPs won’t solve the ‘huge’ staffing problems a coronavirus pandemic would cause, but that it might be helpful to support individual practices with non-clinical work like letters and lab results.
However, he added: ‘There’s a big difference between GPs who have perhaps retired within the last year – which after all is just the same as someone having a maternity leave break and we don’t for one second think that people are unable to work after a break like that – and people who have been out of the loop for many years. It’s important that people understand that we wouldn’t be talking about doctors coming back after five or 10 years’ time into their 80s, we’d be looking at the cohort of recently retired GPs, of which there is an awful lot at the moment.’
He warned of the bureaucratic ‘difficulties’ of the plans, such as the need for emergency legislation to allow retired GPs who have given up their licence to practise back onto the performers’ list.
Dr Green, who stopped clinical work in October, added that he has delayed his voluntary GMC erasure until he sees ‘what happens with the coronavirus’.
He said: ‘I haven’t done it yet because it would be closing a door to me that I might want to take up.’
A spokesperson for MDDUS said: ‘We hope that the GMC will facilitate easy re-registration and we will make sure that our retired members can easily be readmitted to membership to protect themselves against regulatory and other risks.’
MPS chief executive Simon Kayll said: ‘The assumption is that ‘emergency indemnity’ to enable some retired doctors to practise, would be state-backed as it would be NHS contracted work, specifically to support the Government’s plan to manage Covid-19.
‘If those individuals who are former MPS members wished to reactivate their membership to access supplementary non-claims benefits for a limited period, they would be welcomed. We recognise the potential for an emergency situation, and will take all possible steps to ensure that our members can treat patients safe in the knowledge that their MPS membership will provide them with support and assistance should it be required.’
An MDU spokesperson said: ‘If the spread of Covid-19 reaches the stage where retired doctors are allowed to restore their registration with the GMC in order to work within the NHS on a temporary basis, the GMC may need to provide specific guidance for all doctors. If that happens, we will provide advice for MDU members about how it may affect their work.’
The Government’s battle plan comes as GPs raised a number of concerns about NHS preparedness for a Covid-19 pandemic, including a lack of available protective equipment and claims that NHS 111 was signposting potential coronavirus cases to GP practices.
A slew of GP practices in England – at least 20 at the latest count – have been forced to shut for cleaning as the number potential coronavirus cases in the country continues to grow.
On the latest count, 40 people had today tested positive for the virus in the UK, including the first case in Scotland.