Maintaining 11 Covid-19 centres across Northern Ireland is undermining GP services, TUV leader Jim Allister has claimed.
A response to an Assembly question from the North Antrim MLA revealed there have been 6,473 visits to the centres over an eight-week period at a cost of £1,548,400. The average cost per patient was nearly £240, and this was before the recent accelerating decline of the coronavirus.
"But the real cost is in the knock-on reduction in regular GP services," Mr Allister said.
"The rota to service these centres is undermining GP services. I've had GPs recount doing a four-hour shift in a Covid centre and seeing but one or two patients. I am therefore calling on the Health Minister to urgently review these centres."
There has been a decline in the number of deaths and cases of Covid-19 in recent weeks. No new deaths and only four new cases were reported on Sunday.
The overall death toll here stands at 545, with 4,870 cases diagnosed.
In response, the Department of Health said Covid centres "must continue to play a key role".
"GPs across Northern received a total of 38,392 Covid-19-related queries during the period April 9-June 12, 2020. Of these, 7,039 patients with Covid symptoms were then referred to the 11 primary care Covid-19 centres. 15.6% of the patients receiving care at these centres required onward referral to secondary care," it explained.
"It is clear that the risk of patients with even mild symptoms of the disease spreading it to others has been proven. Covid-19 centres must continue to play a key role in ensuring that general practice and GP out-of-hours providers can continue to maintain services for patients who do not have Covid symptoms.
"They ensure that patients with Covid symptoms can be appropriately assessed and treated by a GP, whilst minimising the risk to patients who do not have Covid symptoms."
It said that should a new wave arise during the winter flu season, the need for primary care Covid-19 centres that are separated from GP practices "will be even greater".
"In recognition of the pressures faced by GPs in small practices, or those who have medical conditions which mean that they are at greater risk of Covid-19, arrangements have been put in place to enable those GPs to arrange for locum cover for their shifts in Covid-19 centres. The number, location and operation of Covid-19 centres has been under regular review from the outset of this pandemic and a number of changes have already been made to reduce the demands being placed on GPs.
"Where capacity in the centres exceeds patient demand, rotas may be reduced accordingly.
"Staff can also be put on standby, allowing them to carry out other duties whilst remaining available to assist patients in the centres should the need arise. This approach has seen staffing levels across them gradually reduce to around 50% of original levels but centres need to retain a sufficient level of capacity to manage an influx of cases."
It added further changes are under consideration: "It is likely there will be a requirement for primary care Covid-19 centres until there is a vaccine or appropriate treatment for the disease, we are committed to ensuring that all patients have access to the care they require."