Exclusive GP examiners have expressed concerns over GMC plans to continue to carry out face-to-face PLAB 2 exams in Manchester, despite new guidance against travelling in or out of the city due to high Covid-19 rates.
Overseas-qualified doctors who wish to join the UK medical register have to undergo the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board (PLAB) test, including the practical PLAB 2 assessment.
These will continue to be held at the GMC’s Manchester offices, regardless of imposed travel restrictions, Pulse has learned.
In an update regarding PLAB 2 testing, sent on Friday last week, the GMC asked examiners to ‘continue to attend despite the imposition of restrictions’ in various parts of the UK.
The GMC said this was ‘in line with Government guidance’ and ‘ important for maintaining NHS capacity’.
However GP examiners told Pulse they would feel ‘conflicted’ about travelling to the Covid hotspot, which has had a tier 3 lockdown imposed from the Government this afternoon.
The GMC’s email said: ‘Regardless of the implementation of travel restrictions local to your home, or possible future travel restrictions covering Greater Manchester, we plan to continue to deliver the PLAB exam. This is in line with government guidance and is important for maintaining NHS capacity.
‘We would ask, therefore, that you continue to attend despite the imposition of restrictions as this is allowed under the exceptions of travel for work purposes. Of course, please travel safely and observe strict social distancing once in GMC premises.’
The GMC said this comes as the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges ‘have confirmed that examining and attendance for professional exams has the same status as providing direct clinical care in relation to these restrictions’.
But an anonymous GP examiner told Pulse: ‘I find it surprising that the GMC is continuing to run the PLAB 2 exam at the assessment centre in Manchester at the current time.
‘While they have made changes to ensure the exam observes social distancing guidelines, for many candidates and examiners an exam day would necessitate travel to and an overnight stay in an area which may have increased Covid cases than their home area.’
The GP added that while she understands ‘the importance of the exam to qualify doctors who will then provide essential clinical care’, she personally ‘would feel conflicted between the duty to examine and the safety of my family’.
She added: ‘I imagine the GMC has already explored using regional exam centres – this would seem a safer way forward at this time.’
The British International Doctors’ Association (BIDA) told Pulse it was urging the GMC to consider other options.
BIDA chair Dr Chandra Kanneganti said: ‘Although candidates and examiners can travel as it is considered as essential services, we request the GMC to look at alternate solutions and locations as soon as possible, and also issue guidance of the support mechanism they have in place for those who may be affected by Covid due to the travel to the examinations.’
The Ghanaian Doctors & Dentists Association UK (GDDA), whose members continue to sit PLAB exams, added that it was ‘quite concerning’ to see the tests continuing especially when BAME doctors have a higher risk of serious Covid illness.
GDDA education committee chair Dr Conrad Kwesi Buckle told Pulse: ‘As Black Africans, our members have a higher Covid risk within the Government’s defined BAME group.
‘It is quite concerning that the GMC is considering going ahead with PLAB2 exams in Manchester in the current state of the pandemic, due to the city being one of the areas with the highest number of Covid cases in the UK, and higher personal risk assessments of individual BAME examiners, candidates and staff.’
He noted that other professional bodies – such as the RCGP – have ‘successfully converted traditional format exams to remote platforms to ensure the safety of their candidates, examiners and staff’.
He added: ‘Holding the exams as planned in Manchester would make the exams unfair and potentially discriminating against BAME individuals, as a known group with higher Covid risk. Such individuals may not be able to take part for health reasons, but even worse is the fact that the phrasing of the exam announcement may force them to put themselves at life-threatening risk because they feel they have no other choice.’
He called for the GMC, Academy of Royal Colleges and Government to ‘provide copies of the evidence-based risk assessments, clearly demonstrating that holding the exams in the current format planned for Manchester is a safer, fairer, and more inclusive option than holding them remotely’.
‘If such risk and impact assessments have not been done, then these exams should not take place, and appropriate assessments should be conducted to allow for an informed evidence-based decision to be made regarding the safest format for conducting the exam,’ he said.
The GMC resumed PLAB 2 exams in August, after suspending them during the first Covid peak.
The format of the exam, which is comprised of 18 scenarios aiming to reflect real life settings, was updated to take into account Covid risk. It now comprises of 15 fifteen live stations and three rest stations, five of which will be telephone consultations.
Its new safety measures also include the role player and examiner sitting in separate buildings for telephone-based stations and two large rooms for socially distanced practical stations. The GMC also deep cleaned its offices before reopening.
A GMC spokesperson told Pulse: ‘The new local coronavirus alert levels introduced by the UK Government don’t currently affect our ability to run PLAB 2. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and regularly review our ability to continue safe testing in line with government guidance.’