The government is under pressure to spell out how it will use retired doctors to help tackle the coronavirus after ministers failed to provide any detail about how the scheme would work.
Questions are being asked about the widely reported NHS initiative, which was included in the government’s coronavirus action plan that Boris Johnson launched last week.
But the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not flesh out any of the detail about how it would resolve the complexities of launching the scheme when quizzed by an ex-health minister.
Conservative MP Dr Dan Poulter last week tabled a parliamentary question to Matt Hancock, the health secretary, asking “what steps the government is taking to ensure that retired medical staff will be (a) re-registered and (b) re-certified to practise in the event that they are required to work as a result of Covid-19”.
But in a reply published on Monday, the DHSC said only that it “has indicated that it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period. An answer is being prepared and will be provided as soon as it is available.”
Poulter, who also works part-time as an NHS psychiatrist, said the lack of detail was concerning, especially as the idea could help the health service cope with a huge spike in very sick patients.
“Many recently retired medical staff could be effectively utilised during the coming weeks as the virus spreads, and particularly if patient demand on the NHS exceeds its normal capacity for care. This answer from the Department of Health is concerning and the department needs to do some urgent thinking about how they can temporarily increase workforce capacity in the NHS as the virus spreads,” he said.
“Ensuring these medical professionals can get back to work in a timely manner is an important part of that process.”
Labour seized on the DHSC’s vague reply. “It’s hardly reassuring that ministers can’t answer basic questions concerning a key plank of their coronavirus action plan. We need urgent clarity from government,” said Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary.
Most retired doctors and nurses are not keen to rejoin the NHS if the coronavirus outbreak turns into an epidemic, the Guardian found last week.
The British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, urged Hancock to set out how ministers would overcome the practical and legal obstacles to doctors who are no longer registered with the General Medical Council coming back to work.
“If the government is serious about recruiting retired doctors back into the NHS to deal with Covid-19, it must make the plans and details known to facilitate this in an effective way,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s council chair.
“Retired doctors have a wealth of knowledge and experience and some may be willing to contribute their skills during this emergency. However, there needs to be clarity about how they will be registered to provide medical services, including their scope of work and training required. These logistics will take time and therefore it is important that this information is made clear now so that retired doctors can plan accordingly,” he added.
Dr Paul Donaldson, chair of the policy committee at the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, another trade union, dismissed the scheme, saying: “Trying to re-hire retired doctors is the kind of desperate measure we should never need to resort to.”