Later career and retired members during COVID-19

It is over a year since we were in the middle of the first COVID pandemic wave. Time for some reflections, and I will focus here on some of the contributions of retired GPs to pandemic work.

We opted into the call to help in our thousands. Indeed, many who wished to return in a clinical role were disappointed not to be contacted after they responded positively to the initial call up. It was made very clear in England that returning GPs were wanted in the newly set up CCAS 111 service (COVID Clinical Assessment Service).

For some that were recruited to CCAS111, the onboarding process proved to be very frustrating. For example, I responded to the call immediately on 20 March 2021. I managed to work my first CCAS 111 shift on 14 May 2021 despite being very assiduous in completing all the mandatory training and returning paperwork with no delays. It was very frustrating, as by then the peak of the first wave had passed, and as time went on doctors were fighting over patients on the call list.

However, the excess mortality figures of the past year demonstrate that there was no room for complacency - it needed to be ‘all hands to deck”. A question that will need to be answered in a future inquiry is whether people were deployed appropriately.

In a joint BMA/RCGP letter that was initiated by the RCGP LCARM group, posted in April 2020, we pointed out that this was ‘a marathon not a sprint’, and so it proved. Within CCAS111 a reserve list was created that was called upon in the winter wave. Many retired GPs who had not managed to work in the first wave were recruited as vaccinators. Others worked with Test and Trace.

There was also a call from HEE for returning educators. It was left to each deanery to contact local volunteers. There appeared to be less need for returners than anticipated, but some helped in mentoring roles or with MRCGP examinations.

Retired GPs also contributed in non-clinical ways, supporting and mentoring clinicians. NHS Practitioner Health worked with the LCARM group to recruit volunteer ‘peer supporters’ as it was anticipated that there would be a huge need for support during the pandemic. A pilot was set up that came to an end in May 2021. Some retired GPs have volunteered to be GP mentors on the new RCGP mentoring platform that was launched in March 2021. Other retired GPs are helping in their local communities, supporting food banks, the homeless and refugees and vaccination outreach work.

The work of the LCARM group

We worked at national level within the RCGP highlighting the needs of our group, so this could be communicated to the NHS in the four nations. At local level we hosted many Faculty events virtually, that were free and open to all GPs including non-members.

Anita, LCARM South Yorkshire lead, describes some of these activities in detail in a recent BJGP life article.

What of the future?

CCAS111 has closed down. NHS England has written to GP CCAS returners, asking those who wish to return to the NHS long term to apply via the ERP returner programme.

GP returners demonstrated that their skills and experience could be harnessed to help in a national emergency in so many different roles. Many retired GPs have no wish to return to their old GP roles. The pandemic has demonstrated that there are new ways of working - limited role clinical work that may be of interest to those GPs in later career and to some retirees with special interests. Former GPs should be encouraged to take on mentoring and teaching roles.

Lessons need to be learnt from the past year. We know now that there is a retired workforce with a vast skillset that was untapped before the pandemic. In an NHS that continues to have problems with workforce issues, there needs to be an imaginative approach to welcoming them into new roles.

About the writer

Dr Mona Aquilina is the Chair of the RCGP Later Career and Retired Members Group and is a General Medical Practitioner and GP educator based in London.