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Tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland may have to pay to see GP after mass resignation

By Lisa Smyth

Family doctors are one step closer to staging a mass resignation after health bosses failed in a promise to help struggling GP surgeries.

Tens of thousands of patients across Northern Ireland will have to pay to see their GPs if the threatened action goes ahead.

It will also throw life-saving initiatives, such as the flu vaccination and childhood vaccination programme which are delivered by GP surgeries, into chaos.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has voted to collect resignation letters from members, stating GPs can no longer tolerate the workload and stress, with doctors even raising concerns over patient safety due to working conditions.

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill had promised a rescue package, including a cash injection and an increase in the number of training places for GPs.

However, she was unable to deliver the package as a result of the collapse of Stormont in the wake of the RHI scandal.

The chair of the BMA's GP committee in Northern Ireland last night launched a stinging attack on Stormont's politicians and described the health service as the biggest casualty of the political crisis. Dr Tom Black said: "I cannot express in strong enough terms the anger of our members. We have been working so hard to keep things going and we feel like we and our patients have been let down by the politicians."

BMA (NI) will now begin collecting resignation letters from GP practices across Northern Ireland. They will take effect once BMA (NI) has gathered letters from 60% of GP surgeries.

As a result, the GPs will no longer be employed by the NHS and patients will have to pay for appointments.

A fee has not yet been decided but in the Republic, where patients pay for GP appointments, it is normally between €45 (£38.29) and €55 (£46.80). It is likely patients here will pay a flat consultation fee, but will have to pay more for additional services, such as diagnostic tests.

Fees could result in more people going to emergency departments for treatment.

However, Dr Black last night warned GP services in towns across Northern Ireland may collapse before the resignations take place, such is the fragile nature of primary care services here.

"You could be looking at tens of thousands of people without a GP," he said.

"We have been warning about this perfect storm for years and we agreed a rescue package with the health minister before Christmas and now we are being told, that because Stormont has collapsed and no budget has been agreed, the package is not going to be delivered."

The chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) in Northern Ireland voiced support for the action. Dr Grainne Doran added: "It is regrettable that the lack of investment and action from the government has brought us to this point."

However, Ms O'Neill has said she was disappointed by the development but services will continue as normal for now. She said a number of measures have been put in place to encourage more doctors to work as GPs.

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