The public are being urged to treat all respiratory symptoms as a possible sign that they have Covid-19 "until proven otherwise" in order to reduce the risk of further transmission.
Dr Knut Moe from the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) said there is clear pressure on services right across the health system as they battle to manage the increase in Covid cases alongside other seasonal illnesses.
"GPs are receiving an increasing number of calls about respiratory symptoms and giving advice to their patients on Covid isolation, testing and minimising the impact and possible transmission.
Calls to GPs
"It’s clear the self referral pathway is also under considerable strain for PCR testing, so GPs are receiving lots of calls looking to be referred for testing. We’re also still carrying on with our regular work and doing flu and Covid booster vaccines, so we're still very much open for business, however there may be some delays in accessing services for routine appointments at present."
As the latest wave of infections pushed the hospital system to breaking-point – as of 8am on Friday there were 643 patients with the virus in hospital, 118 of whom were in intensive care – Dr Moe said the knock-on effects are being felt in GP practices around the country.
"Hospitals would like to see their patients more quickly, but have had to curtail services to deal with increasing patients with Covid needing hospitalisation and intensive care.
"Similarly, GPs are dealing with more and more Covid queries and trying to assess patients in terms of their urgent need for medical attention. The fallout from this is that there will be delays in accessing any services."
Despite the pressure on the system, Dr Moe stressed that anyone with a medical ailment which requires prompt attention should not delay in contacting their GP for assessment and advice.
He said GPs are seeing an increasing number of people relying on antigen tests. "It is very important to know the right time to use these tests, that is when you are asymptomatic and are having frequent social contact," Dr Moe said.
"An antigen test can pick up a potential case in an asymptomatic person, but they are less useful in picking up positive cases in symptomatic patients, where a PCR test is the gold standard test.
"We need patients to assume any respiratory symptoms, be it a scratchy throat, runny nose or a head cold, is Covid until proven otherwise and to isolate and get a PCR test.”
"We really need people to go back to doing the basic things well - washing hands, wearing masks, social distancing, reducing close contacts, and isolating and following public health advice if they develop symptoms."
Dr Moe also warned there is likely to be delays in accessing GP services for some time to come. He said: "In many practices where a same day appointment or service was the norm, this will likely not be possible throughout this winter."
‘Work with us’
Urging patients "to work with us on this", he said people should be honest about how urgent their need is, as a delayed appointment may be more appropriate in some cases.
"It is important to remember general practice is very much open, however, we are having to manage the workload to try and see those who need it most first.”
Earlier this month Dr Moe, the director of the ICGP’s Network of Establishing GPs Programme, told Breakingnews.ie that Ireland is “not too far off a major catastrophe in general practice” due to the shortage of GPs in the speciality.
Recent figures from the ICGP estimate that of the approximately 4,700 GPs currently working in the State, 700 will retire over the next five years, while just 350 GP training places are planned for 2026.