The total number of medical school places will rise from the current cap of 6,000 to 7,500 by 2020 in what health minister Philip Dunne hailed as the 'biggest ever expansion of the medical workforce in England'.
Medical schools will offer 500 posts more than current capacity from next year, and then bid for a further 1,000 places, which will be targeted to help regions that traditionally struggle to recruit trainee doctors and to support lower-income students. Bids for the extra places will have to set out how they will tackle shortages of doctors particularly in coastal and rural areas.
Plans announced today by the DH to expand training places came with no mention of the military-style mandatory term of NHS service for medical graduates proposed by health secretary Jeremy Hunt at last year's Conservative party conference.
Mr Hunt first unveiled proposals to expand medical training posts by 1,500 in his Birmingham conference speech last year, alongside plans that would have forced doctors trained in England to serve at least four years in the NHS. However, a DH statement said the government would 'continue to consider return on taxpayer investment' - echoing the language used by Mr Hunt to justify plans for a minimum term of service.
BMA leaders demanded clarity over the government's stance on mandatory NHS service, warning that to impose the plans would further damage morale among doctors and put potential recruits off medical careers.
Announcing the expansion of medical training, Mr Dunne said: 'We’re committed to giving more talented students the chance to be part of our world-class NHS workforce. Not only is this the biggest ever expansion to the number of doctor training places, but it’s also one of the most inclusive; ensuring everyone has the chance to study medicine regardless of their background, and ensuring the NHS is equipped for the future with doctors serving in the areas that need them the most.
'For too long, a cap on training places has meant thousands of talented students are rejected from university courses each year despite meeting requirements for medicine or nursing. These students will now be able to fulfil their potential.'
The extra places being opened up will 'play a key role in ensuring the NHS has the doctors it needs the most by giving priority to general practice' and psychiatry, the DH said.
BMA medical students committee co-chair Harrison Carter welcomed plans to improve access to medical school for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, saying that the medical profession 'represent the people it serves'.
He warned that foundation training would have to expand in line with extra medical school places 'so no doctor faces unemployment after qualifying'.
Mr Carter added: 'The students who will benefit from these new placements will take at least 10 years to train and become senior doctors so we mustn’t forget this promise won’t tackle the immediate shortage of doctors in the NHS, which could become more acute following Brexit. As such we require equal focus on retaining existing doctors in high-quality jobs which will provide more immediate relief to an overstretched medical workforce.
'Medical students also need clarity on whether they must work for the NHS for a minimum number of years following graduation. This proposal isn’t necessary as only a small minority of doctors do not complete their training in the NHS and it would only serve to worsen poor morale and potentially discourage students from choosing medicine. It could also be discriminatory towards women, who are more likely to take more career breaks than men.'