GPs are urging the Government to clarify its position on face mask wearing in GP practice settings, after NHS England and Public Health England said infection prevention and control (IPC) guidance will not change on Monday.
The current IPC guidance states that in primary care settings ‘patients/individuals and accompanying persons [are] asked to wear a mask/face covering at all times’.
The Government this week confirmed that legal Covid-19 restrictions will end in England next week, with the summer ‘roadmap’ stating that ‘the legal requirements to wear a face covering will be lifted in all settings’.
However, wearing a face mask in healthcare settings was never a legal requirement, and Public Health England told Pulse that there are ‘no plans’ for the IPC guidance – which is agreed by all four nations and Public Health England, along with NHS England – to change from Monday.
Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s Covid-19 strategic response director said: ‘There is current IPC guidance in place in healthcare settings and both patient and staff safety must remain the highest priority.
‘The guidance, which includes measures for both staff and visitors, covers appropriate use of face covering and social distancing. The guidance is under constant review based on available and emerging evidence.’
NHS England’s latest primary care bulletin also clarified that IPC guidance in GP practices would remain in place, despite the Government’s announcement.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘It is essential that this is communicated clearly and widely so that everyone understands what to expect when entering surgeries, hospitals and other health and care premises, and why these measures are necessary to protect us all and to effectively get on top of this pandemic’.
And Londonwide LMCs chief executive Dr Michelle Drage said: ‘It unfair and unrealistic to expect general practice staff to single-handedly inform patients of this and enforce it, especially after a week of the Government telling people mask-wearing will no longer be a requirement as of Monday.’
Lincolnshire LMC medical secretary Dr Kieran Sharrock told Pulse: ‘Preferably the NHS itself would say [that] to protect healthcare workers, who are vital in the fight against Covid, we need to make sure that people are wearing masks so that your GP and their colleagues don’t get it themselves.’
While Nottinghamshire LMC chief executive Michael Wright said: ‘To us, nothing changes [on Monday], apart from patient expectation.’
Pulse has asked the Department of Health and Social Care to clarify its position on the wearing of face masks, after Monday’s roadmap seemed to promise further guidance on the matter.
It said: ‘To help reduce the spread of Covid-19, published guidance will advise that wearing a face covering will reduce your risk and the risk to others, where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet in enclosed and crowded spaces.’
However, the DHSC could not immediately point Pulse to any such guidance.
It comes as Pulse revealed this week that GPs have been threatened with legal action by patients who object to being asked to wear a face covering in their practice.
And a large BMA survey showed 91% of doctors wanted face masks to remain mandatory in GP practices and other healthcare settings.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has said he will continue to wear a mask indoors and in crowded situations, or when asked to do so ‘by any competent authority’.
Meanwhile, GPs took to Twitter to ask patients to continue wearing a mask, including Cotswolds GP partner Dr Mark Porter, the Whickham Practice in Newcastle and the Wellspring Surgery in Nottingham.