Annual report 2020

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic timeline

2020, a year like no other, presented the biggest challenge the UK’s healthcare systems have ever faced.

Here, we describe the steps we took to support the UK-wide response to the outbreak of COVID-19, up until December 2020, as well as the significant and prolonged impacts it’s had on our operations.

From responding to the immediate impacts of the pandemic, to working through the recovery of our projects and operations, our principal objective has always remained the same − to keep patients safe and support doctors.

Timeline

January

28 January

Upon seeing an escalation of COVID-19 cases in China, our incident management team met and activated our pandemic response plan, in the preparedness phase.

March

3–11 March

As the situation developed, we issued joint statements with other healthcare regulators, the UK’s chief medical officers and the four statutory education bodies, outlining our approach to regulation considering the context of the pandemic.

11 March

The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

16 March

Following the UK Government’s ‘stay at home’ announcement we issued guidance to our staff on working remotely. On the morning of 17 March, around 1,500 colleagues successfully logged on from home.

18–25 March

To ease the pressure on the UK’s healthcare systems and the medical workforce, we deferred revalidation for one year for more than 60,000 doctors who were due to revalidate between March 2020 and March 2021.

Following government advice on social distancing, we cancelled all PLAB 2 tests between 18 March and 29 June.

We temporarily paused our quality assurance visits to medical schools and our enhanced monitoring processes. We also extended the approval of doctors who are recognised trainers for 12 months.

We temporarily paused requesting information from employers and healthcare professionals in fitness to practice investigations unless we identified an immediate patient safety concern. We continued to progress investigations where possible, and with the agreement of relevant parties, to minimise delays.

26 March

In response to the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care activating section 18A of the Medical Act, we started granting temporary emergency registration to doctors who had left the register or had relinquished their licence in previous years. By 24 June, we had restored 34,837 doctors to a licence or registration with a licence. 

April

2 April

We published our Coronavirus online guidance hub, an online source of information and guidance specifically developed to support doctors involved in the response to the pandemic. By the end of 2020, 376,078 people had accessed the information.

7–9 April

We invited final year medical students to apply for provisional registration at an earlier point in the year than usual, so they could provide further support to our health services. We worked with the Medical Schools Council and medical schools to ensure learning outcomes were met. Between April and June 2020, we awarded provisional registration to 6,868 UK graduates. Of these, 4,662 graduates filled foundation interim year 1 (FiY1) posts by July – 72% of which were in areas where there were confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

21 April

We worked with UK statutory education bodies, medical royal colleges and faculties to approve changes to curricula to enable as many trainees as possible to progress to the next stage of training, while ensuring patient safety would not be compromised. 

June

11 June

We began conducting quality assurance visits to medical schools and enhanced monitoring activities fully online.

15 June

We tailored our Barometer survey to find out more about doctors’ day-to-day experiences during the pandemic. Over 3,600 doctors responded to the survey, an independent research project that we commission annually. We presented the findings in The state of medical education and practice in the UK 2020.

We worked with suppliers to restart PLAB 1 tests where they had stopped, in compliance with public health guidance in the host countries. Measures depended on local circumstances: unfortunately, in some locations PLAB 1 tests had to be cancelled, in line with the host country’s public health advice.

July

1 July

We developed a new policy supporting solutions to allow trainees to sit over 100 different exams safely. We also supported the Royal College of General Practitioners in developing an entirely new exam, which was approved and up and running in July.

13 July

After careful consideration and with agreement from responsible officers, we decided to resume existing investigations, where possible. We progressed these investigations in discussion with affected doctors, employers, complainants and medical defence and support organisations.

16 July

We issued a shorter and more targeted version of our national training survey, usually released in March. This enabled us to capture vital insights into training practice and training environments, while keeping the pressure on trainees and trainers to a minimum.

22 July

Our Outreach teams began delivering an interactive online version of Welcome to UK practice, which doctors from anywhere in the world could join.

August

13 August

Following work to make our Clinical Assessment Centre safe, we were able to resume PLAB 2 exams for doctors whose tests had been postponed.

September

14 September

We issued guidance for fitness to practise decision makers describing how to take into account the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic when investigating concerns about a doctor.

November

11 November

We issued a new joint statement with all four chief medical officers and the National Medical Director of NHS England to support doctors. The statement acknowledged the challenging circumstances in which healthcare professionals were practising and outlined our commitment to take into account factors relevant to the environment should a concern be raised with us.

17 November

We hosted an education summit with key stakeholders across the four countries to reflect on lessons learnt during the pandemic. Together, we explored how best to seize the opportunity to embed longer-term changes in medical education and training.

18 November

We announced we would extend the changes we introduced in April and July to continue to maximise the number of trainees who could progress during the pandemic.  

25 November

In a time of immense pressure, we published wellbeing resources for doctors working in challenging circumstances. We also published our Wellbeing plan to promote and support good health and wellbeing among colleagues.

27 November

Our annual The state of medical education and practice in the UK 2020 put a spotlight on the diverse impacts the spring peak of the pandemic had on the profession and patient care. Issues emerging from the report, including inequalities in experiences related to ethnicity, led us to reinforce our call for action to improve healthcare environments, cultures and leadership.

December

30 November–2 December

We held our first online conference, Delivering change together, bringing together people from across the UK’s healthcare systems to discuss issues facing the medical profession and the UK’s healthcare systems, at a particularly challenging time.

7 December

We helped promote the national UK-REACH study into COVID-19 outcomes in people of different ethnicities working in health and social care.

8 December

Our Chair, Dame Clare Marx, sent a message of support and thanks to all doctors, acknowledging their dedication, professionalism and compassion throughout an incredibly challenging year.