GPs in the NHS Lanarkshire health board area will only assess the most serious cases for the next four weeks as coronavirus cases continue to put pressure on services.
The health board, which remains at the highest black alert level, said all GP surgeries will be moved to a “managed suspension of services” and will only focus on the most urgent and time-critical care.
In a briefing note, NHS Lanarkshire said the only way it can preserve its “never services” – the ones it would never wish to stop – is by “making difficult decisions on prioritising the use of staff across health and social care”.
Dr Linda Findlay, medical director at South Lanarkshire Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “This change to GP practices will help us deal with the continuing challenges in community services and help reduce the pressure across the whole system, including our acute hospitals which are under sustained pressure.”
NHS Lanarkshire said it is dealing with record Covid case numbers and ongoing staff sickness absences.
GPs will continue to deliver services, it insisted, but will focus on urgent care, including the assessment of people with respiratory or coronavirus symptoms.
Dr Keith McIntyre, chairman of Lanarkshire GP sub-committee, said: “People should continue to contact their GP practice for urgent issues, such as if they think they have symptoms of cancer.”
He said doctors are asking residents for their “continued help and support during this challenging time”, and he highlighted a “number of alternatives where people can turn to for health care”, including local pharmacies, the NHS Inform website and NHS24, which he said will allow GP surgeries to “focus on the most urgent of cases”.
He added: “The services provided under this change will vary between practices depending on their individual circumstances.
“However, GPs will continue to see patients in-person as and when it is appropriate.”
In October, NHS Lanarkshire declared a black alert and said it was at critical occupancy levels because of overall pressure on the health system.
At the time, the health board’s deputy chief executive Laura Ace said the sustained pressure was “unprecedented” and showed no signs of easing.
Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: “It is beyond a shadow of doubt that our NHS is in the midst of an historic crisis.
“This unprecedented move reveals how dangerous the situation really is. Not long ago escalating to risk level black was almost unheard of, but now not even that is enough.
“Staff are working tirelessly to do right by patients, but services have been pushed past breaking point. “This health board was already at the highest risk level – alarms have been sounding for months on end, but the SNP failed to respond.
“Our NHS is in critical condition. The SNP need to wake up to the scale of the emergency we face and deliver urgent support for NHS Lanarkshire and the rest of our struggling health boards, as well as a real long-term recovery plan.”
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane described the decision as “deeply worrying for patients”.
He called on the Scottish Government to put NHS Lanarkshire health board on level five, the highest level of supervision, until the crisis is resolved.
“There is a staffing shortage across our NHS – and it’s particularly acute in GP services,” he said.
“As a practising GP myself, I know the immense stress colleagues are under. (Health secretary) Humza Yousaf must urgently come up with a strategy for managing the NHS crisis.
“His efforts to ease pressure on A&E departments saw him direct patients from emergency wards towards GP services whenever possible.
“But NHS Lanarkshire’s announcement shows that this has only shunted patients from one under-resourced part of the health service to another.”
Cabinet secretary for health Humza Yousaf said: “The health service faces the most difficult winter it ever has, and the next few weeks in particular will be extremely challenging.
“Health Boards are having to take very difficult decisions in order to ensure they prioritise urgent and critical care.
“We understand that NHS Lanarkshire has made the difficult decision to reduce some services to concentrate on care and treatments that cannot be delayed. Services will be resumed as quickly as the NHS Lanarkshire is able to do so.
“Patients will be able to see a GP when they need to.”