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GPs refute briefing claims that they are ‘referring large numbers to A&E’

More than 450 GPs and primary care staff have signed an open letter after an emergency medicine professor suggested in last night’s Government briefing that practices have ‘referred large numbers of patients to the emergency department’. 

Named as ‘Suzanne from Chesterfield’, Professor Suzanne Mason, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Sheffield, made the comments in the live televised briefing with the Prime Minister, chief medical officer and chief scientific officer – the final of the daily updates. 

During the questions from members of the public, Professor Mason asked: ‘When will primary care and dental practices be encouraged to work normally again now that the threat level is at three? We are seeing large numbers of patients referred to the emergency department because their GP or dentist are refusing face to face consultations. How soon will they be getting back to normal?’

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, replied: ‘GPs have of course been working throughout this and done an absolutely fantastic job if I may say so to my colleagues.

‘Inevitably, to reduce the risk of transmission – to reduce the risk that people come into contact in waiting rooms and indeed between clinical staff and patients – they have changed the way they’ve worked and many of those changes are actually things that make sense for the longer term, even if it wasn’t for coronavirus.’

The GPs’ open letter – which at time of publication has been signed by 452 primary care staff – reads: ‘During the Prime Minister’s daily coronavirus briefing on 23 June, [Professor Suzanne Mason] stated that “large numbers of patients” were being referred to the emergency department in which she works because their GP or dentist had refused to see them face-to-face.

‘As general practitioners, we wish to reassure the public that NHS GP surgeries are open and available to patients who need us, and have been throughout the pandemic. In order to safeguard the public from unnecessary risk, GPs have shifted to online and telephone consulting where safe and appropriate.

‘We hope that Suzanne’s comments do not deter patients from approaching their GP if needed, and respectfully invite Suzanne to spend a day with a local GP so she can see first-hand how hard NHS GPs are working during this pandemic.’

The letter’s author, Dr Heather Ryan, a GP in Warwickshire, explained: ‘I found Suzanne’s comments very frustrating, as it feeds the public perception that general practice has been closed during the pandemic. In fact, GP surgeries have been open throughout. What has changed is the way in which GPs are working – to minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission, GPs have moved to other forms of consulting, such as telephone and video calls.

‘I started the open letter because I wanted to reassure the public that general practice is still very much open for business.  I don’t feel it’s helpful that a consultant colleague talked about general practice in this way on national television.’

One of the signatories, London GP Dr Thomas Round, added: ‘The comments show a total lack of understanding of primary care and the massive changes we have made almost overnight in the face of a pandemic. We have on the whole moved to a full triage system of digital/phone access to keep patients and staff safe.’

The sentiment also won the support of NHS England’s medical director of primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, while a Facebook post from ‘Dr Rant’ has warranted almost 3,000 likes today on the topic.

Pulse has contacted Professor Mason, who declined to comment.