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Half of GP practices in three towns ‘at risk of collapse’

Three more towns in Northern Ireland are at risk of losing at least half of their GP practices, the BMA has warned.

Practices in Dungannon, Ballymena, and Comber are facing acute pressures from being unable to fill GP vacancies from retirement or illness.

It follows the closure and merger of practices in County Fermanagh which saw 18 practices amalgamated into nine.

It means some patients having to take a 25-30 mile round trip to the next town to see a GP.

Dr Alan Stout, Northern Ireland GPC deputy chair said: ‘We’re seeing a lot of practices in a lot of difficulty at the moment and we have got a small number of real pressure points that we’re very concerned about.

‘Dungannon, Ballymena and Comber risk losing 50% if not all of the GP service for the town.’

He added: ‘Our priority is to try and come up with solutions but ultimately it might end up with a number of contracts being handed back.’

But there is no capacity in practices to take on any extra patients when GP practices have to close, he said.

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‘I can’t think of any practice that could take on another 1,000 patients.’

Dr Stout said one aspect they were working on with the department was the use of the wider multidisciplinary team.

‘We can’t just suddenly produce more GPs so we need to get more staff into the primary care environment to take the pressure off and increase capacity.

It was one of the proposals included in the GP Future Plan, signed off last December as a rescue plan for Northern Irish general practice, but never enacted due to collapse of the power sharing government.

The warning comes as GPs in Northern Ireland are to receive an additional £3.9m in funding, including £1.7m to help practices deal with an increasing elderly population and £2.2m to uplift the GP contract by 1%.

The BMA said their prediction of 20 practices having to close this year had come to pass and over the past decade the country had lost around 10% of practices when they should have been increasing.

The Northern Irish GPC is still collecting undated resignations from practices as part of a move that could see practices leaving the NHS en masse and begin charging £45 per consultation.

Commenting on the extra funding, NI GPC chair Tom Black said: ‘This is a help because it is a small amount into core funding but it also has money for the rescue teams we will need for collapsing practices.’

However to secure the future of general practice in NI he said ‘we need the GP led care review plan implemented and we will the pressure up on this’.