GPs have been given millions to keep patients out of hospital this winter, but now the BMA has warned workforce problems could see it go unused.
Northern Ireland NHS leaders have made a fund worth £1.4m available to GP practices to put on extra clinics and offer additional appointments, alongside an £850,000 injection of winter funding for GP out-of-hours servives.
However, the BMA’s GP Committee said practices were already running ‘at full capacity’ and they were struggling to find locums to do any extra work.
Instead, Northern Irish GPs have warned they may be forced to cut opening hours and turn patients away this winter, sending them straight to hospital.
Northern Ireland GPC chair Dr Alan Stout said: ‘The extra funding gives us two options, the first is we can get existing staff to run extra surgeries, say in the evening, or we can bring in extra staff. But we just can’t get locums and GPs are already working at full capacity – most are working into the evening now anyway.’
Dr Stout said that GPs were working hard to try to make use of the extra funding but there was only so much they could do and it was likely it would not all be spent.
‘Year on year it is becoming more and more difficult. We have been fortunate that we have not had a bad flu season for a number of years but if we get a bad flu it will be really difficult,’ he added.
Under the scheme, which runs until March, practices receive funding for setting up additional clinics with the main aim of keeping patients out of hospital.
The money is part of a £7m pot the Department of Health has made available for dealing with winter pressures throughout the health service in Northern Ireland.
Dr Stout said the GPC was discussing other options to relieve the pressure on practices, including groups of practices joining together to provide a home visiting service to keep more GPs in the surgery, as well as GP hubs to deal with on-the-day demand.
‘None of these ideas gives a magic solution but all play a part in helping to free up capacity,’ he said.
The BMA is in the process of collecting undated resignations from practices, after GPs unanimously voted to walk away from the NHS after years of severe underfunding.
RCGP figures suggest by 2020 Northern Ireland will have a shortfall of more than 300 GPs.
CCGs across England are also hoping GP practices will put on extra shifts to reduce A&E pressure, injecting hundreds of millions.