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RCGP refrains from endorsing mandatory patient face masks in practices

The RCGP is ‘strongly encouraging’ patients to wear face coverings when visiting practices, but says that making this compulsory may herald ‘unintended consequences’.

It warns that if face masks were made mandatory for patients, it could lead to them being deterred from seeking medical assistance or to practice staff having to call the police in the event of non-compliance.

The college says it supports face coverings becoming mandatory in shops in England tomorrow (24 July), and on public transport, which has been the case since 15 June.

Chair Professor Martin Marshall said: ‘Broadly speaking, the College is supportive of face coverings being mandatory in enclosed public spaces, where social distancing is difficult, such as public transport and shops. We would also strongly encourage patients to wear face coverings if they attend their GP surgery to help minimise potential spread of Covid-19 and maximise the safety of practice staff and other patients.

‘However, we feel mandating use of masks in general practice may have unintended consequences. We don’t want a situation where patients are deterred from seeking medical care when they need it because they’re not wearing a face covering – and we don’t want a situation where members of the practice team are expected to enforce mask wearing or call the police if a patient refuses to wear one.’

Professor Marshall also noted how the recent increase in face-to-face appointments affects the wearing of face coverings, and reiterated how patients should not be requesting exemption notes from their GP.

Meanwhile, the College would like to see unity, and ‘strong, unambiguous guidance from NHS England’.

Professor Marshall continued: ‘As we move to the next stage of the pandemic, GPs are already noticing an increase in the number face-to-face appointments we are making. In these cases, safety remains a priority and all general practice staff will be wearing masks or be behind protective screens.

‘But from a patient perspective, we would like to see strong, unambiguous guidance from NHS England, encouraging patients to wear masks, as opposed to mandating it – as well as clear public messaging that wearing a mask is not an alternative to other measures, such as appropriate social distancing, where possible, and hygiene measures.’

He added that the college had heard reports of ‘patients asking GPs for exemption notes’. He said: ‘This isn’t a good use of GPs’ time when we’re on the frontline of dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19 and preparing for a potential second wave of the virus alongside expected winter pressures.
‘As we continue to tackle Covid-19, it’s imperative that everyone is on the same page in order for this intervention to have a real impact and slow the spread of the virus.’

There has been significant confusion about whether attendees of GP practices sholud be wearing face coverings, after NHS England, Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care appeared to provide conflicting advice.