His comments come just a month after the elusive target to persuade half of medical graduates to enter GP training schemes was pushed back again after numbers fell short of required levels for the third year running.
But the health secretary said recruitment towards this target – and the ultimate aim of boosting the workforce by 5,000 GPs by 2020 – was ‘not doing too badly’, adding that there was ‘a lot of interest’ in GP careers.
‘I think it is very clear that we will need to train a lot more generalists,’ Mr Hunt told a House of Lords committee on Tuesday. ‘We are very lucky to have our traditional general practitioners in this country and they are perfectly positioned to look after the growing numbers of elderly people who you want to keep healthy and happy at home.
‘Internationally people look at us and say we have a huge strategic advantage because of our general practice. That’s why we said we’d increase funding going into general practice by 14% in real terms by the end of the parliament. We’re also aiming to recruit around 5,000 more doctors in general practice, the biggest net increase in GPs in NHS history.
‘It’s not just what we plan for. Part of this is also going to be talking to medical colleges and schools. In order to deliver that, we need around half of doctors to want to go into general practice when they graduate.
‘And we’re not doing too badly, actually. There is a lot of interest in that, but I think we need to bang the drum for that – what I think will be the most exciting part of change, if we’re talking about an integrated health and social care system – a GP is going to be an absolutely critical player in that. We need to convince people it is the most exciting area of the NHS to go into.’
GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘He has to put his money where his mouth is – we’ve heard the rhetoric so many times, now we need to see some action.
‘We need materialisation of the money in the GP Forward View as well as true investment in general practice that goes beyond this.
‘This would give us the ability to expand the general practice team – which includes others as well GPs. If we can get that bigger team together with better and bigger support from community nurses as well, then you can get a system where GPs feel comfortable working to a way that’s going to help the population.
‘There’s been a small uplift in recruitment but there are still a lot of vacancies – I don’t think we’re anywhere near getting the number of GPs we need.’
The BMA warned earlier this year that GP recruitment was 'woefully inadequate' after official data showed slow workforce growth in 2016. A poll published earlier this month by the union warned that GP practices were coping with 'permanent holes' in their workforce.
Mr Hunt admitted earlier this year that he had failed to give building the GP workforce the priority it needed in his more than four years as health secretary.