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Primary care networks (PCNs) has played a significant role in combating the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, according to a report on the progress made and challenges faced by networks in the first two years of their five-year contract.

The report, based on a series of engagement sessions, hosted by the PCN Network, and a survey of more than 150 PCN clinical directors and PCN managers, was released by the NHS Confederation on Monday (2).

“Just two years on from their creation, they have risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic, administering the majority of vaccinations, reaching out to underserved communities and making headway against their objective to tackle health inequalities,” the report said.

Despite high workload during the pandemic PCNs’ profile has increased, leading to greater awareness of the services they offer and strengthening of relationships with local partners.

They helped in workforce development along with leadership capability and retention.

The report noted that PCNs are developing creative ways to reach underserved communities, tackle health inequalities and manage population health.

Highlighting the challenges faced by PCNs, the report said, “More than nine in ten survey respondents said their workload was greater than expected, with the consistently high workload derailing PCNs’ existing and planned work programmes.

“New service specifications are causing confusion over the purpose of PCNs, while a lack of consistent infrastructure was seen as hindering progress. Tensions were also identified with some local partners.”

A similar report on one-year performance of PCNs was released in July 2020, which identified three principles for NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSEI) to consider when developing PCN policy.

The three principles were – PCNs having autonomy over their resources and influence over policies determining their future, as well as within integrated care systems (ICSs); a flexible approach to be factored into their development; and for the shift towards ICSs to be accompanied by streamlined processes for PCNs. These principles have informed PCN policy over the past year, especially with regards to the health and care bill and ICS guidance.

“We encourage NHSEI to use these principles to underpin the development of PCN policy and all policies that impact PCNs,” it said.

The 2021-22 network Direct Enhanced Services (DES) addressed some of the asks, that have not been resolved fully and remain relevant.

“Through continuing engagement with clinical directors and PCN managers, we will develop specific asks for the 2022-23 network contract DES in the autumn, relating to workload management; funding for PCN leadership and management; certainty around funding streams and contractual arrangements; and consistent and streamlined processes,” it said.

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