General practice has lost almost 600 fully-qualified GPs in the past year

England's NHS has lost 576 full-time equivalent, fully-qualified GPs over the past 12 months - a drop that suggests the decline in GP numbers has accelerated.

GP workforce (Photo: Robert Johns/UNP)

In June 2019 there were 28,257 full-time equivalent (FTE) fully-qualified GPs working in England, figures from NHS Digital reveal - 2% below the figure a year earlier.

Over the three months from March to June 2019 alone, the FTE fully-qualified GP workforce slumped by 440 doctors, the figures reveal. This is similar to the fall in the GP workforce for the entire year to March 2019.

The data show that former health secretary Jeremy Hunt's pledge in September 2015 to add 5,000 FTE GPs to the NHS workforce remains far from being achieved. Current health secretary Matt Hancock pledged earlier this year to set a new deadline for delivering the increase after ditching his predecessor's promise that it would happen by 2020/21.

But the total FTE GP workforce figure that the government target is measured against - which includes registrars and locums - has actually fallen since Mr Hunt's pledge. In June 2019 the total FTE GP workforce was 34,114 - down 148 from 34,262 in September 2015.

GP workforce

Numbers of GP partners have continued to fall sharply, the figures show, with a drop of more than 1,000 FTE partners in the year to June 2019 alone.

BMA GP committee executive team member Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said: 'These statistics are a stark illustration of the workforce crisis that continues to blight general practice.

'In the face of high workloads, punitive pension regulations and the overly burdensome admin that comes with running a practice, it is no surprise that the number of GPs, and in particular partners, is continuing to fall. This is despite repeated pledges from the government to boost numbers by thousands.'

The figures came as the latest data on GP earnings and expenses from NHS Digital showed that in 2017/18 income for family doctors rose slower than the rate of inflation.

GP contract

Dr Kasaraneni said the BMA was hopeful that practices working closer together and the recruitment of new support staff through primary care networks (PCNs) could 'go some way to alleviate some of the workload pressure placed on doctors'.

He added: 'While the number of trainees choosing family medicine is rising, crucially general practice needs to become a more attractive career for those already working within it. The government must value the workforce, both by increasing resources and scrapping damaging pension rules that are forcing hard-working GPs to retire or reduce hours before they both want and need to.'

Dr Kasaraneni said the latest figures on GP earnings 'suggest that years of repeated, real-terms pay cuts for GPs are starting to be reversed'.

But he warned: 'While earnings may have gone up, the number of doctors continues to fall, with the NHS in England losing more than 800 partners alone over [2017/18]. As patient demand rises and the workforce gets smaller, GPs are taking on more work – often in excess of their contracted hours. This places a huge amount of strain on GPs, who are putting their own health and wellbeing at risk to ensure their patients get the best care possible.'

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'GPs are the bedrock of the NHS and we’re backing them with an extra £4.5bn a year by 2023/24. Last year a record 3,473 doctors were recruited into GP training and we’re funding 20,000 more staff in GP practices.'

The spokesperson also highlighted proposals to allow doctors to reduce their risk of facing large pension tax bills by reducing their pension contributions as a factor that could allow doctors to 'spend more time with their patients'.

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