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GP Practices and Furlough - Further Clarity is Needed

On the 26th March, the government released information to support businesses in the UK through the Coronavirus Pandemic. This of course has proved to be a lifeline for so many businesses, but what help and support have Practices had during this unprecedented time?

Practices have already received huge amounts of clinical information from Public Health England, NHS, the government etc. But there’s still lots of questions for the operational side that practice managers have been asking around staff requirements, sickness, furlough, shielding and many others.

Because the NHS guidelines have focused on larger Trusts and hospital settings, it has led to some lack of clarity for primary care. The reality is that much of the guidance from the government has had to be re-interpreted for practices by employment lawyers, accountants and HR professionals.

We have been made aware that some FPM members have been told by some of these companies that they can indeed furlough their staff. Why are practices getting such mixed messages in this already difficult time?

There are still some questions that need further clarity for practices;

Are there any circumstances when a Practice CAN Furlough?

The current consensus here is no - as a publicly-funded organisation that has not received a reduction in funding, practices should not need to furlough employees. The NHS has made provision for the cost of any locums needed to replace absent clinicians, so consequently, any cost of paying for an employee who is shielding or self-isolating, should be covered. However, how does this apply to the non-clinical team?

Furthermore, the guidance suggests there may be “exceptional circumstances” for when a public sector organisation may be able to furlough, but at the moment there is no guidance as to what these are (though we believe they may relate to a business that receives some private funding).

Is it fair not to Furlough and only pay SSP for employees that are Shielding?

The guidance around this is ambiguous. Government advice states that  “Employees who are unable to work because they are shielding in line with public health guidance (or need to stay home with someone who is shielding) can be furloughed

However, it is not clear whether this applies to practices or not, as elsewhere it only states that employees shielding can be furloughed if the business plans to use the furlough scheme, which of course, is not believed to be open to practices. Therefore currently, there is high level of risk should a practice try to furlough shielding employees, as there is a strong chance they will not be eligible to claim back the grant from HMRC.

The BMA have published guidelines today stating “if the funding that supports the employment of that member of staff is being maintained practices are expected to continue to pay at full pay”.

Therefore that leaves three options for practices currently.

  1. Pay SSP (the minimum amount)
  2. Pay in line with the practice sickness policy, which may include Company Sick Pay and SSP
  3. Pay full pay in line with BMA guidance

This also leads to a moral argument of whether it is right for a GP Practice employee who has put themselves on the front line to only receive SSP, when their practice is not seeing a reduction in funding. We are expecting that, following the BMA guidance released today, that many practices will choose to pay their employees full pay, when they cannot work due to being advised to Shield.

Many Practices have seen a reduction in administration work due to the removal of routine appointments. What should administration teams be doing in this time?

Although the way that a practice works has changed, the funding has not. Therefore although there might be less work for some admin teams, they cannot be furloughed. So what can they be doing with this time?

Of course this depends on the practice, but many practices are thinking outside the box and supporting other practices in their PCNs that may have lost staff due to self-isolation or redeployment, for example.

So where does that leave practices?

The advice from most professional bodies remains the same - practices are not expected to furlough. In some rare situations it may be possible, but it is likely HMRC will ask questions around any practice that does furlough, risking the possible payment of the grant. Therefore, if a practice makes that decision, they will need some strong justification as to why.

 

FPM will continue to get answers to these questions and more and publish any relevant updates.

For all your HR and employment questions relating to the Coronavirus, download our HR FAQs Guide, available in the Pandemic Toolkit Library.


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