The Northern Ireland public is likely to experience difficulties accessing GP services in the coming days as the region deals with the latest Covid-19 wave.
The head of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland GP committee has warned multiple surgeries are experiencing staff shortages this week due to Covid-19 infections.
As a result, there are fewer medical and administrative staff available to cope with demands on the already over-stretched service.
Dr Alan Stout explained: “As community transmission has risen, that affects everyone and that includes staff in all sectors, including GP surgeries and other healthcare settings.
“In our own practice, we have four people off due to Covid-19.
“When a GP is affected, they can work from home if they are up to it, they can do call backs and arrange for face-to-face appointments with doctors who aren’t isolating.
“However, the biggest issue is with administrative staff who answer the phones, so when you get 200 calls before 9.30am, as we did in our practice, and you only have three people to answer the phones, you run into problems.
“That’s when patients get frustrated because they can’t get through to the practice, or they have to make hundreds of calls before they can speak to someone.
“The majority of people are understanding but a small cohort aren’t and we want the public to appreciate the challenges that we are facing.
“GP surgeries are doing their best but with a large number of staff having to self-isolate, there will be an impact on services.”
According to the latest statistics, one in 25 people in Northern Ireland were infected with Covid-19 in the week ending June 24, compared to one in 30 in England and Wales, and one in 18 in Scotland.
The number of people testing positive for the virus in recent weeks has also been increasing, up by 40% to 6,563 cases in the week ending June 26 from 4,703 the previous week.
Wastewater surveillance also detected an increased amount of SARS-CoV-2 in June 2022.
The areas with the highest positive cases per 100,000 of the population in the week ending June 26 were Lisburn and Castlereagh, followed by Ards and North Down, and Antrim and Newtownabbey.
During the same week, there were 13 new outbreaks reported in care homes across Northern Ireland and 393 Covid positive inpatients on June 30.
However, it is hoped Northern Ireland may be approaching the peak of the current wave, while those who are catching the virus are not as likely to become as severely unwell.
Dr Stout continued: “We are seeing people fall ill with a variety of symptoms, some people are getting flu-like symptoms, some people are getting mild upper respiratory symptoms.
“Others are getting more of the neurological type symptoms, fatigue is quite prominent.
“The cough was much more prominent during the earlier waves where people were experiencing the terrible cytokine storm that was affecting peoples’ lungs very badly.
“That’s why they were going into intensive care and people were dying and we’re not really seeing that with the current wave.”
However, while Covid-19 rates are high in the community, the virus will continue to heap pressure on the health service, with a growing number of staff off work.
“I think the biggest pressure is going to be staff absences as opposed to level of serious illness, but again there are so many unknowns when it comes to Covid, so we are all just hoping we’re not going to get a more serious strain.”