All GP practices in England will have to face-to-face appointments and an in-person reception desk, NHS England has said.

The move will bring an end to the “total triage” system introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.

GPs have been told the use of telephone and online consultations can remain where patients benefit from them, but physical appointments must also be available from May 17.

In a letter sent out on Thursday, all practice reception desks must now be open to patients, in a Covid-safe manner, so those who do not have easy access to phones or the internet are not disadvantaged when accessing care.

Before the pandemic, some 70% of appointments were face-to-face and 30% were phone, video or online, but this switched to around 30% face-to-face and 70% remote at the height of the crisis.

The total triage system was introduced as a Covid-19 precaution. Patients were screened remotely before being directed to the most appropriate health service for their problems.

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In the joint letter from Dr Nikki Kanani, medical director for primary care at NHS England and director of primary care Ed Waller, doctors were told patients’ preferences must be respected.

“Patients and clinicians have a choice of consultation mode,” they said.

They added: “Patients’ input into this choice should be sought and practices should respect preferences for face-to-face care unless there are good clinical reasons to the contrary.”

Dr Kanani and Mr Waller cited the presence of Covid-19 symptoms as an example of a reason to refuse a face-to-face appointment.

“Patients should be treated consistently regardless of mode of access,” they said.

“Ideally, a patient attending the practice reception should be triaged on the same basis as they would be via phone or via an online consultation system.”

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, welcomed the news that the option of in-person services should be available to everyone.

He said: “This is good news and is what patients and GPs want to see. It removes ambiguity and we are particularly pleased that our calls for shared decision-making between GP and patient on the most appropriate method of consultation have been heard.

“We now have a flexible approach decided upon by clinicians and their patients.”

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