GP leaders fear government 'airbrushing' of workforce failures

GP leaders have warned the government against 'airbrushing' its failure to increase GP numbers after the health secretary's annual review of NHS England's performance did not evaluate progress on GP recruitment.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt (Photo: JH Lancy)
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt (Photo: JH Lancy)

In his report published this week, Jeremy Hunt welcomed the GP Forward View and good progress on implementing improved access to GP services. In the assessment of NHS England’s performance against its mandate from government Mr Hunt noted the requirement for a ‘larger primary care workforce’, but did not give an assessment of NHS England’s progress.

NHS England is mandated to deliver, with Health Education England (HEE), 5,000 extra doctors in general practice by 2020 compared with 2014.

The government this month recommitted itself to meeting the pledge first made ahead of the 2015 general election. Primary care minister Steve Brine MP told the House of Commons the government was committed to an extra 5,000 GPs as part of a wider increase in the primary care workforce.

GP workforce

The target, which now forms part of NHS England’s GP Forward View, was dealt a fresh blow in May when figures showed the workforce had shrunk by 445 in the last quarter of 2016.

Acting GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘It's a concern if the DH is airbrushing out the failure so far to increase GP numbers and genuinely expand the primary care workforce in a sustainable way.’

He added: ‘They must not ignore these crucial areas, no matter how difficult the task is, and they would be far better spending scarce NHS resources on these areas rather than more extended access to an already overstretched general practice service.’

In its annual report, also published this week, the DH did admit there had been ‘particular difficulty in building on the number of GPs in practice’.

The report said that ‘despite ongoing work there was a drop in the effective GP workforce, from 34,914 full-time equivalent GPs recorded in March 2016 to 34,372 full-time equivalents’.

GP access

Mr Hunt, elsewhere in his report on NHS England's performance praises the roll out of extended access to GP services. ‘I am pleased to see the continued improvement in in 2016/17, with 17m patients (30% of the registered population) benefiting from extended access to general practice,’ he said.

Mr Hunt added that while progress had been made on better use use of digital services with 15% of patients accessing primary care online, ‘there are still GP practices that are not delivering this access and so I have asked you in the mandate for 2017/18 to ensure that access to patient online services extends to 10% of patients in all GP practices’.

On NHS finances, Mr Hunt said that as well as mandating financial balance, in the next year the government will also ‘set out a further four deliverables focused on efficiency and productivity, cost recovery, and supporting the release of £2bn and land for 26,000 homes’.

Mr Hunt said: ‘The government set out in the mandate for 2017/18 its ambition to deliver the best care and support to today’s NHS patients, seven days a week, but also deliver the reform and renewal needed to sustain the NHS for the future.

'There remains a great deal more to do to meet this vision, particularly to improve quality and safety whilst maintaining financial sustainability. The scale of the challenge the NHS faces is significant. Continuing the constructive joint working with NHS Improvement and HEE to manage the challenges the NHS experiences over winter effectively, as well as continuing to make progress to retain and increase the workforce (including through delivery of the GP Forward View) will be key.’

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