Call for public messaging on NHS delays

by Jennifer Trueland

The leader of Scotland’s GPs is calling for a clear and well-resourced messaging campaign to stress the NHS is not back to normal – and may not be for some time.

Location: Scotland
Published: Friday 4 December 2020
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BMA Scottish GPs committee chair Andrew Buist (pictured above) said patients had been through a lot and were understandably frustrated they couldn’t have the same service as they did before the pandemic.

But he said that frontline health staff were left to deal with the consequences, which included resentment from some members of the public because they were unsure of what was happening.

Explanation needed

Speaking to the conference of Scottish local medical committees, which was held virtually on Friday, Dr Buist said the BMA had been calling for a clear messaging campaign, but politicians were yet to deliver effectively.

‘The public have been through a lot in 2020,’ he told the conference. ‘At first they were afraid, fear then changed to other emotions, gratitude, anxiety, low mood, frustration and sometimes even anger. They want their NHS back, of course, we all want to get back to normality as soon as we safely can, but I don’t think we have done enough as a country to explain to the public what is happening in healthcare.’

Politicians’ job

Dr Buist said the messaging needed to come from the Government.

‘It can’t just be left to clinicians on the front line to explain to every patient why their treatment will be delayed,’ he said. ‘We don’t know how long they will have to wait, we have no idea, because no one tells us. I understand this type of public conversation causes concern amongst our political leaders, and that they fear that the opposition see such honesty as a weakness to be exploited.

'It is a sad reflection of our society. And so it is GPs and in many cases practice staff who are left to deal with the consequences – not the least of which are often very frustrated patients. We simply must have clearer messaging from across the system to help people understand what to expect of their NHS while we still deal with COVID-19, and ensure expectations are realistic.’

GP portrayal

Dr Buist praised GPs for their efforts during the pandemic, saying they had worked incredibly hard and kept general practice open for business, transferring their service delivery model overnight. But he said that this had been undermined by misleading reports that GPs were not that busy and that they were trying to reduce access.

‘This irresponsible representation of the position simply does not reflect our reality. It threatens to turn the rainbows and public clapping into resentment that undermines trust and can lead to verbal abuse of GPs and our staff and even abusive graffiti on our practice walls. This needs to stop,’ he said.

Dr Buist also said the BMA still believed the new Scottish GP contract was the way forward for general practice but that progress had been patchy and overall not good enough.

‘The reasons for this are due to a combination of issues from insufficient workforce, to lack of premises, inadequate management support and perhaps inadequate funding. So, we were already behind schedule pre-COVID and it is now clear it will not be delivered in full by April 2021. This is clearly very disappointing.’

Public frustration

While COVID had hindered delivery, the BMA and the Scottish Government had agreed a new timescale for implementation, he added, and stressed that he remained committed to it.

Health secretary Jeane Freeman also backed the contract in her final speech to the conference of Scottish LMCs before stepping down next year, saying she looked forward to getting it back on track.

She praised general practice for its efforts throughout the pandemic and said she would work with doctors to get the message across to patients that the NHS could not yet get back to normal.

‘The public are understandably frustrated. They want services to suddenly appear, but we all know that is not possible. I will work with you all to communicate this message,’ she said.