MORE than two million Brits were left without out-of-hours GP cover at one point last year, an investigation reveals.
It shows one in 13 providers had periods when they had no family medic available.
The number of urgent care shifts with no GP present almost trebled in a year – from 57 to 146 in 2018.
It meant worried Brits had no option but to head to busy A&Es, or be treated non-medically trained staff, nurses and paramedics – putting them at greater risk.
Britain’s top GP said the findings were “alarming”.
Rachel Power, Chief Executive of the Patients Association, said: “Patients will be extremely concerned to learn that there is a growing risk that when they need support from a GP out of hours, there may not be one available. “These findings suggest the out of hours system is close to the point of collapse, or maybe even past it.”
More than 2.1 million people live in the parts of the UK affected by the shortages, with experts blaming a chronic lack of family doctors for the staffing crisis.
The damning figures were revealed following Freedom of Information requests by GP magazine Pulse.
Only one in three out-of-hours providers responded, so the true number of shifts left with no cover is likely to be much higher.
Dr Simon Abrams, a Liverpool medic and chair of Urgent Health UK, which represents out-of-hours providers, said: “We’re in a national recruitment crisis. If you’ve got a day job there’s a lot of pressure that makes being available to do out-of-hours even less likely than it used to be.”
NHS figures show there are around 27,500 full-time GPs in England – down 1,800 from three years earlier.
Leading medics blame heavy workloads and pension changes for growing number of colleagues walking away.
In England, two areas failed to fill out-of-hours shifts last year.
Tower Hamlets in east London, which cares for 331,000 people, had no medic on call three times, while North East Lincolnshire, which covers 169,000 patients, had two instances.
Matters were much worse in Wales last year, where regions were left without an out-of-hours GP on more than 130 occasions.
Hywel Dda University Health Board, which is responsible for 384,000 patients, had no cover for 125 shifts.
Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University and Aneurin Bevan University health boards were also left without out-of-hours GP on occasion.
In Scotland, there were eight instances when areas were left without an out-of-hours medic.
NHS bosses said they were using advanced nurse practitioners and paramedics to plug the gaps.
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But Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said patients deserved better.
She said: “This investigation reveals just how much GP out-of-hours services in some areas are struggling, and it is particularly alarming that in some areas, shifts are being run without a GP.
“This poses a real safety risk not only to our patients, but also to overworked staff who run the risk of becoming burnt-out as they struggle to cover empty shifts.”
An NHS England spokesperson said: “This data shows it is primarily an issue of concern for the NHS in Scotland and Wales, rather than in England, where a new state-backed insurance scheme covering both in and out-of-hours care gives GPs more of an incentive to work these shifts.”
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