General practices should reduce social distancing from 2 metres to 1 metre to help improve access to GPs, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has recommended.
The statement comes as part of the authority’s review into the current infection prevention and control guidance (IPC), which was referred to in NHS England’s £250m-backed GP access plan (14 October).
As part of its review, the UKHSA said: ‘Physical distancing can be reduced from 2 metres to 1 metre in primary care and general practice with appropriate mitigations, such as the continued use of face coverings or masks.’
General practitioners and primary care providers will need to undertake local risk assessments to identify where physical distancing can be reduced, it said, with this information communicated with patients.
It also recommended that similar preventative actions such as mask-wearing and handwashing should remain in place.
It comes days after the Daily Mail claimed the health secretary would ‘tear up social distancing in surgeries to finally give thousands more patients face-to-face appointments with their doctor’.
Rather, the guidance recommends the physical distance between patients should be reduced by half.
Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said the move to 1 metre physical distancing brings GP practices in line with hospitals, welcoming the recognition that these decisions should be made locally.
‘We cannot go back to over-crowded waiting rooms with sick and vulnerable patients being put at risk of contracting a deadly respiratory virus whilst waiting for an appointment and the Government must be clear with the public about why all healthcare settings continue to operate in a different way, rather than continuing to fuel a damaging narrative about general practice that belies the reality and puts staff at risk of abuse,’ he said.
Over recent months, GPs and practice teams have challenged suggestions that general practice were not providing face-to-face appointments.
The UKHSA today said that face-to-face consultations ‘can now go ahead’, but recognised the ‘important role’ that video and telephone appointments will continue to have.
Local clinical leaders will need to make the decision on when to see patients in person or remotely, based on factors like capacity, ventilation and patient needs, it said.
In May, NHS England ordered GPs to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients, which the chair of GP Survival suggested appeared ‘to have been made as a result of a press campaign suggesting that surgeries are closed’.
Last month, the Doctors’ Association UK reported Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) for breaching the Editors’ Code of Practice with articles in which she suggested GPs were ‘hiding’.