It follows mounting unrest within the Cabinet and growing anger from Tory MPs about measures that one of the Government’s own scientific advisers described as “irrational”.
Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), highlighted complaints about the fact that large groups could meet for sports while both grandparents could not visit a family of five. But he suggested the alternative could mean “hard lockdown”.
The developments come amid concern that NHS measures introduced in response to Covid-19 are having devastating consequences, with patients denied basic healthcare.
On Monday, NHS chiefs will write to every GP in England, instructing them to ensure patients can access face-to-face appointments, not just consultations by phone or video. Patients’ groups have warned that vulnerable people, especially the elderly, are being “shut out” from surgeries under measures introduced to stop the spead of the virus.
Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, said on Sunday night that patients had “rightly” highlighted the need for face-to-face visits, as figures showed that almost half the 102 million GP consultations between March and July were delivered by phone or video.
Doctors hit back, with the Royal College of GPs saying it was an “insult” to suggest GPs had not been doing their job properly.
The letter from Dr Nikki Kanani, medical director of primary care for NHS England, addressed to all family doctors, says: “Many of you will be aware of reports by some patients that they are experiencing difficulty in accessing their GP for needed face-to-face appointments.
“We are writing to reiterate the importance of providing face-to-face appointments for those who need them.”
Such consultations should always be offered when clinically appropriate, the letter adds.
Additional guidance goes further, saying patients should be told that online and phone appointments “can be convenient and flexible… but if you would prefer to see a GP or healthcare professional in person then this will be arranged for you”.
It comes amid concern about rising numbers of deaths among people who went untreated for killer diseases, such as heart conditions, during lockdown. In the two months to July 10, deaths linked to high blood pressure rose by one third among the under-65s, while those linked to diabetes increased by a quarter.
Charities have raised concerns that the fall in visits to GPs during lockdown, and reduced numbers of referrals for cancer checks, could mean a sharp rise in deaths. At the height of the pandemic, referrals from GPs to check symptoms fell by 75 per cent, with UK modelling suggesting this year could see an extra 35,000 cancer deaths.
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that people dying at home from causes other than Covid-19 have fuelled excess deaths across the UK this summer (see graphic below).