The figures confirm the sharp decline in GPs opting for partnership roles, with the decline in partners outstripping the overall decline in the GP workforce.
Overall FTE GP numbers dropped from 34,126 to 33,872 - a drop of 0.7% - from 31 December 2016 to 31 December 2017, provisional data suggest. Over the last three months alone, overall FTE GP numbers fell by just over 200.
From 31 December 2016 to 31 December 2017, numbers of FTE GP partners fell from 20,835 to 20,128 - meaning that one in 29 GP partners in England were lost over that one-year period alone.
Finalised figures for 30 September 2017 published alongside the latest data show that overall FTE GP numbers fell from 34,592 to 34,091 over the two years from September 2015. This is a significant change from provisional statistics published earlier this year that suggested almost 1,300 FTE GPs had been lost in that period.
However, analysis of the NHS Digital data reveals that the updated statistics have been bolstered by the addition of almost 800 GP registrars - trainees. Looking at data that excludes registrars, locums and retainers, overall FTE GP numbers fell by 1,393 over the two years from September 2015 - a 4.8% drop.
The data also show that the FTE practice staff workforce grew over the two years from September 2015 to September 2017, rising from 88,275 to 91,022.
Numbers of FTE practice nurses working in general practice fell over this period by around 450 to 11,390 - but overall FTE nurse numbers in general practice grew by around 400 to 15,800. The rise was driven by growth in numbers of nurse practitioners and practice nurses with 'extended roles'.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘This is very disappointing news - and frustrating as even a small drop in GP numbers can have a huge ripple effect on hard-working GPs, our teams and the care we are able to give to our patients.
‘GPs are currently facing intense resource pressures, and we desperately need more doctors if we stand any chance of turning this crisis around. Workload in general practice has increased by at least 16% over the last seven years, but the number of GPs delivering care to patients has not risen in step.
‘For some, the pressure has become too much and it’s genuinely awful that some GPs are prematurely leaving a profession, which, when properly resourced and funded, can be so rewarding and fulfilling. But ultimately, it’s our patients who suffer when we lose GPs and we need to make sure that, as well as retaining existing and experienced doctors, measures are taken to attract new GPs to the profession for the future.’
GPC workforce lead Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said evidence that GP numbers were falling despite government pledges to increase the workforce were a 'real concern'.
'Patients are already facing long waits for appointments, and a fall in GP workforce will only make this worse.
'Fewer trainees are choosing to enter general practice, more senior doctors are leaving the profession, and large numbers are changing the way they work in the face of systemic pressures. This is clear in the 8% fall in the number of GP partners working in England since 2015.'
GP leaders have repeatedly warned that the profession needs a significant injection of funding beyond the £2.4bn annual rise by 2020/21 pledged under the GP Forward View.