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Health service will take years to recover from coronavirus crisis, says BMA chief

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Serious situation: Tom Black

Serious situation: Tom Black

Serious situation: Tom Black

A top GP has warned it could take years for the health service to recover from the effect of Covid-19.

Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland, said that doctors will have no alternative to prioritising illnesses which need urgent treatment as the service is already struggling to cope with the extra time it is taking to deal with patients on a daily basis for non-Covid-19 related conditions.

His comments come after the publication of a new survey of BMA members which shows that almost two-thirds of medical professionals here are fearful the health service will not be able to cope with patient demand.

"There have been real issues over how we've been operating during the pandemic," said Dr Black. "As lockdown eases it's going to escalate.

"At its peak we were probably dealing with half as many issues as usual. That has risen recently and we're now seeing about 70% of the normal demand for this time of year.

"We deal with issues over the phone where we can, we are sent photos of lumps, bumps and rashes, and only bring in the few that we have no alternative for.

"It all takes time. It's too slow, too awkward and if demand goes back up to the pre-Covid levels then we are looking at a serious situation in getting people the treatment they need.

"The pressure on GPs is immense, physically and mentally."

The BMA survey also showed that three-quarters (74%) of health professionals here are not at all or not very confident that community settings, including care homes, will be able to cope with patient demand when normal services resumes.

Dr Black said the time it is currently taking to deal with individual patients is adding to the growing waiting lists.

"We have to make sure the staff do not have the virus and the patient does not have any symptoms. If we need to admit someone, we need two negative swabs before we can proceed," he explained.

"There are then issues in hospital and theatres where everything needs decontaminated. The whole process is very time-consuming.

"The issues are there across the health spectrum and it looks like this is going to be the case for the next year at least.

"As a health service we are simply going to have to reset our values, prioritise emergencies, cancer patients, maternity.

"Most GPs I know didn't take holidays over the winter period. Then they went straight into this pandemic. They've had no break at a time when they are trying to manage their own lives as well, help children with homework if they can. Many are even staying away from their families to protect them.

"Doctors are tired. One I know has been working 15 hours a day for 49 days in a row and that's not sustainable.

"In four months' time winter will be here again and the pressure will be on from the Department of Health to try to reduce waiting lists.

"Making the decision to go into lockdown was the easy one. It's how we reset expectations of the service as we ease restrictions that's going to be the tricky part. Covid-19 is something we're going to have to contend with for the next year at least and we have to face the possibility we might never get a vaccine."

The Department of Health said the findings of the survey provided a "cautionary note of the expectations of local doctors" about the potential for quickly rebuilding health and social care services in Northern Ireland.

"The department recognises that it will take many months to rebuild services against the backdrop of retaining readiness to respond to further potential waves of Covid-19 that might occur," it added.

"That is why in order to protect the HSC and give it the best possible foundation on which to start the resetting of services, we would urge the public to continue to act responsibility and adhere to the guidance on social distancing."

Belfast Telegraph