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Northern Ireland GPs 'too stretched' to offer patients seven-day services

Dr Tom Black

A doctor has warned that seven-day GP services are "simply not possible" in Northern Ireland due to a resource and staffing crisis.

Chair of BMA Northern Ireland's GP Committee Dr Tom Black was speaking after comments by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said he will offer a "new deal" for doctors in England - if they sign up to seven-day opening.

The package includes plans to recruit 5,000 new GPs and another 5,000 support staff, including practice nurses.

The measures are designed to ease doctors' workloads and make the profession more attractive to young medics starting their careers.

There are also plans for a national marketing campaign to attract the best and brightest students into general practice, which is suffering from a lack of new recruits and the threat of many GPs retiring soon.

However, the Health Secretary said GPs have to support his plan for seven-day working and extended opening hours in return.

But Dr Black said as the situation was worse here, seven-day opening "won't happen".

"The crisis facing GPs across the UK is mirrored in Northern Ireland. However, the picture is almost bleaker here; we have the lowest number of GPs per head of the population in the UK and the lowest funding compared to anywhere else, but we have the highest demand for services," he said.

"Currently we don't have the resources or workforces to open on Saturday or Sunday. We also don't have any evidence that there is a demand for these routine appointments at the weekend. What we do know is that patients want to get the best service they can when they do see their GP, and stretching GP services even more means that won't happen."

Currently in Northern Ireland 24% of GPs are over 55, while 41% are over 50 - meaning 500 GPs could be lost from the workforce in the next 10 years. However, only 20 whole time equivalent GPs entered the profession last year.

Earlier this year the Belfast Telegraph reported from a conference how one Belfast GP described the waiting room at the out-of-hours base where she works as a "war zone".

Dr Ursula Brennan said: "You have 100 patients waiting for triage, 10 to 12 visits to be done, and what seems like a war zone in the waiting room."

The conference heard numerous examples of how out-of-hours bases closed for hours at a time because there were no doctors to staff them. On some occasions there was only one doctor to cover an entire health trust, they said. GPs were constantly harassed by text messages begging them to work shifts in the out-of-hours service.

Belfast Telegraph