Two GP surgeries have handed back their contracts to health bosses in recent days, with a warning that another five practices are also at risk of closure.
t has emerged Ballymena Family Practice and Flax Medical Centre in Ardoyne have handed back their contracts to the Department of Health.
It is the latest signal that primary care services in Northern Ireland are reaching breaking point after more than a decade of warnings over GP training numbers went unheeded.
It means thousands of patients are currently at risk of losing their GP unless the Department of Health can find alternative doctors to take over running of the two surgeries.
Coming as a growing number of patients are paying for private treatment due to Northern Ireland’s hospital waiting list scandal, the development has prompted the chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Northern Ireland to raise concerns over increasing health inequalities here.
“If not the most deprived area in Northern Ireland, Ardoyne is one of the most deprived areas here, so the last thing we want is for patients to struggle to access GP services,” said Dr Alan Stout.
“This is a very worrying time for general practice and in addition to these two surgeries, there are another five surgeries that are at imminent risk of handing back their contracts.
“There isn’t one surgery in Northern Ireland that has the capacity to take on additional patients when a practice hands back its contract.
“When this happens, it has a very destabilising effect on the service and can push neighbouring surgeries closer to crisis.
“The problem is we simply don’t have the workforce to meet demand currently.”
It is understood the threatened closure of Ballymena Family Practice comes about as the GP there is moving to rescue Grove Medical Practice in north Belfast.
In July, the partners at the surgery announced they would be unable to provide GP services from the end of the year.
Last month, the Belfast Telegraph revealed more than 130,000 people in Northern Ireland were at risk of losing their GP.
At the time, 20 GP surgeries in Northern Ireland, serving nearly 7% of the population, were receiving support from the Department of Health’s crisis intervention team.
The team exists to assist GP surgeries struggling to cope with demand and step in to offer intensive support to help the practices remain open and continue to provide the vital NHS service.
The Department of Health recently announced a £5.5m package of measures to help ease the pressures facing primary care services across Northern Ireland.
It includes £1m to attract, recruit and retain GPs to work in hard to recruit areas, and a£3m investment to support practices through the winter period and give them capacity to provide additional in-hours sessions to help meet heightened demand.
An additional £800,000 investment is being made in the GP out-of-hours service and a commitment has also been given to progress work to address issues relating to GP indemnity.
The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.