Coronavirus: GPs may 'withdraw services over lack of PPE'
GP leaders in Belfast have said the system is now in crisis due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
In a letter to the Department of Health, the chairs of the north and west GP federations said they might be forced to withdraw services.
They said this was due to "shortages of PPE, particularly masks and aprons".
The department said work began on Friday to distribute the latest batch of PPE supplies for GPs and will be completed by Wednesday.
Health Minister Robin Swann said the "protection and health and safety of our front line staff is an absolute priority".
The federations, representing 40 practices and more than 220,000 patients, said staff and patients were at risk.
'Placed at risk'
There is also concern over "difficulties with delivery of orders that have been placed".
Speaking to BBC News NI, Dr George O'Neill, chair of the west Belfast federation, said GPs were "scared and anxious".
"I have many GPs ringing me fearful not only for themselves but also their families whom they are returning home to. But also practice nurses who are particularly being placed at risk," he said.
"What is also worrying is that they all said they couldn't speak out as they were worried about their jobs. Now is not the time for that. That shouldn't be an issue.
"Nurses are having to dress patients who have leg ulcers, who require bloods being taken; they are constantly at risk as are patients as there aren't enough masks to go around."
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The federations wrote to the Department of Health on Wednesday 8 April. By Saturday, deliveries still had not arrived.
GPs in the west of Northern Ireland, including those in Fermanagh, Enniskillen and Londonderry, are also warning about the lack of equipment.
A GP in Fermanagh said she was unable to run baby clinics as they did not have the protective equipment for either the staff or patients.
Dr O'Neill acknowledged it was a global problem, but questioned why assurances had been given at Stormont briefings that PPE had been ordered and was being delivered when clearly it had not been.
"Clearly there was a lead-in time that was wasted, when more ordering and preparations could have been done," he said.
"I am not blaming anyone, this is not one person's fault but clearly this is serious. Questions will be asked when there is an inquiry into all of this later on.
"Now the priority must be accessing the right equipment at the right time in the right place."
Dr O'Neill suggests someone should be appointed in Northern Ireland to oversee the delivery of equipment across the system.
"At this stage what is in place is not working," he said.
"The equipment must be shared not only across hospitals, but especially to those working in community care, particularly care homes.
"I am deeply concerned about what I know is happening in care homes. Elderly residents are dying and the staff are there with them, beside them, caring for them with many not having the correct gear.
"We signed up to care for people but not to put our lives at risk."
Dr O'Neill said he was also concerned about what was unfolding in care homes.
"The daily death toll here is not reflecting the number of people dying in care homes and that is worrying," he said.
Dr O'Neill said care homes were especially vulnerable as some residents did not have the capability to tell staff how they felt.
"I'm aware of one home in west Belfast where there has been a worrying number of deaths - many are Covid-related - but they aren't included in the daily total - so NI's figures are much higher," he added.
On Sunday, it was announced another 11 people with Covid-19 had died in NI, bringing the total to 118. There have been 1,806 confirmed cases,
In an email to Dr O'Neill from the Health and Social Care Board, a spokesperson said once orders had been processed, the distribution would be prepared.
In a statement to BBC News NI, Mr Swann said his department was "working hard to ensure that vital supplies of PPE are maintained".
"I know our GPs are working hard for all of us and that they are still delivering critical services to the community, despite the unprecedented challenges they face," he said.
"GPs continue to order and obtain PPE under the agreed processes.
"It is also why the primary care Covid-19 centres have been established in every trust, to preserve essential primary care services by reducing the pressure on general practice."
Mr Swann said his department was also "working hard to build up our PPE stockpiles for the expected second surge later in the year".