OpenSAFELY NHS Service Restoration Observatory 1: Primary care clinical activity in England during the first wave of COVID-19

The OpenSAFELY Collaborative

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted healthcare activity. The NHS stopped non-urgent work in March 2020, later recommending services be restored to near-normal levels before winter where possible. Aim To describe the volume and variation of coded clinical activity in general practice, taking respiratory disease and laboratory procedures as examples. Design and setting Working on behalf of NHS England, a cohort study was conducted of 23.8 million patient records in general practice, in situ using OpenSAFELY. Method Activity using Clinical Terms Version 3 codes and keyword searches from January 2019 to September 2020 are described. Results Activity recorded in general practice declined during the pandemic, but largely recovered by September. There was a large drop in coded activity for laboratory tests, with broad recovery to pre-pandemic levels by September. One exception was the international normalised ratio test, with a smaller reduction (median tests per 1000 patients in 2020: February 8.0; April 6.2; September 6.9). The pattern of recording for respiratory symptoms was less affected, following an expected seasonal pattern and classified as 'no change'. Respiratory infections exhibited a sustained drop, not returning to pre-pandemic levels by September. Asthma reviews experienced a small drop but recovered, whereas chronic obstructive pulmonary disease reviews remained below baseline. Conclusion An open-source software framework was delivered to describe trends and variation in clinical activity across an unprecedented scale of primary care data. The COVD-19 pandemic led to a substantial change in healthcare activity. Most laboratory tests showed substantial reduction, largely recovering to near-normal levels by September, with some important tests less affected and recording of respiratory disease codes was mixed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E63-E74
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number714
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • COVID-19
  • Electronic health records
  • General practice
  • Primary health care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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