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NHS England’s media briefings caused rise in complaints against GPs, say doctors

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4684 (Published 30 November 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4684
  1. Elisabeth Mahase
  1. The BMJ

GP leaders have demanded that NHS England and NHS Improvement apologise and retract any communications that may have harmed their reputation or incited complaints by implying that practices have not been fully involved in care of patients throughout the covid-19 pandemic.

A motion passed at the annual conference of England’s local medical committees on 27 November said that much of NHSE/I’s communications with GPs, the press, and the public have been “abhorrent and insulting.”

The conference called for NHSE/I to recognise general practice’s contribution to the management of the pandemic and the continuation of normal service, “particularly given the general practitioners who have died in the course of their duties to the public.”

The motion added that it “deplores the habit” of briefing journalists before communicating with the profession and its representatives. This refers to an episode where NHSE/I briefed journalists on a letter it had written to all practices reminding GPs that patients must be offered face-to-face appointments when they need them. This led to negative media coverage and a reported rise in complaints and abuse received by GPs.

The incident led to Richard Vautrey, chair of the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee, writing to the NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, asking for NHSE/I to “apologise to the profession and correct damage that has been done.”1

Vautrey wrote, “Implying within the press release that GPs are not providing patients with the appointments they need and ‘reminding’ them that they face ‘enforcement action’ if they do not has presented NHSE/I as antagonistic and completely out of touch with the profession. It also seems to many GPs that NHSE/I has, by using this tactic, intentionally sought to create negative media coverage of primary care services.

“The BMA is now hearing large numbers of reports from practices receiving complaints and many staff members being verbally abused by the public based on these unsupported and ill-informed media articles. This is clearly unacceptable, and NHSE/I must correct these inaccurate and damaging stories immediately.”

More than 400 GPs have since signed an open letter raising concerns about inaccurate and harmful media messages.2

Speaking at the conference in favour of the motion, Francesca Frame, Cambridgeshire LMC representative, said that GPs had been “constantly undermined” and that relations between the profession and patients had been eroded by NHS England’s actions. “The last nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster. Personal experience started with anxiety as the speed and scale of the pandemic became clear, progressing to fear as I was having to beg, borrow, or plead for adequate PPE [personal protective equipment], to distress at hearing of fellow GPs and medical professionals losing their lives. I worried about how to keep my frail, multimorbid, and vulnerable patients safe,” she said.

“Then came frustration at a lack of a national voice communicating, explaining, or championing the remarkable job that primary care was doing. Amid all the noise of the pandemic, that was deafening. Now it is anger: anger that a profession that has stepped up, put our patients first, innovated and transformed, and overcome challenge after challenge has been treated with such disrespect by NHS England.”

NHSE/I had not responded to a request for a comment by the time of publication.

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