Government not on track to deliver 6,000 more GPs by 2024, admits Javid

The government is set to miss its manifesto pledge of delivering an extra 6,000 full-time equivalent GPs by 2024, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid has told MPs.

Parliament (Photo: Nuwan/Getty Images)
Parliament (Photo: Nuwan/Getty Images)

In evidence to the House of Commons health and social care select committee, Mr Javid said he would like to see the increase of 6,000 GPs, but that he was 'not going to pretend we are on track when clearly we are not'.

The promise of 6,000 more full-time equivalent GPs by 2024 featured in the Conservative manifesto at the last general election, alongside a promise to increase appointments in general practice by 50m.

Just days after the BMA demanded honesty from the government over the workforce crisis in general practice, Mr Javid appeared to repeat a disputed claim that GP numbers had risen by more than 1,200 in the two years to June 2021.

GP workforce

However, asked directly whether he believed the government was on track to meet the target of 6,000 extra FTE GPs in England by 2024, he said: 'No, I don't think we are.'

Mr Javid pointed to 'record numbers' of students in medical schools, and said international recruitment would have an important role to play in addressing GP shortages.

But he said the government was 'not on track' to meet the target and that he was looking at what more could be done. The health and social care secretary also told MPs that he felt there was a need for a 'fresh look' at how to encourage GPs to take on permanent salaried or partnership roles in practices.

Mr Hunt - who in 2017 became the UK's longest-serving health secretary after completing five years in the post - told Mr Javid: 'That 6,000 target came after a target I introduced in 2015 - to have 5,000 more GPs by 2020, which we did not succeed in delivering.

Medical graduates

'We did in that period have a big increase in new graduates from medical school going into general practice but the reason we did not hit that target was because there was at the same time a big increase in the number of GPs going part-time or retiring early.'

Citing evidence from recent BMA polling that one in four GPs plan to go part-time in the next 12 months amid soaring pressure in primary care, he asked: 'How do we stop history repeating itself?'

Mr Javid said: 'Anyone - GP or otherwise - has a right to go part-time or in some cases retire early, and partly this comes back to a point made earlier that we have to make sure we are listening to what can help GPs and also their general work environment. I absolutely recognise that pressures have been immense, unimaginable pressures.'

Despite evidence of intense workload and high levels of GP burnout even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Javid added: 'Pre-pandemic we wouldn't have thought about this kind of pressure on our primary care clinicians, including GPs.

Winter access fund

'We have to look at other ways we can support, it has got to be about recruitment as well. For those who do want to work extra hours, if that is a question of extra funding or other changes it is important to provide that as well. The £250m access fund for the next five months - that was partly put together because GPs came to us and said there will be some GPs who can work extra hours but you have to be able to fund it.'

GP leaders have pointed out however that not all of the funding will be targeted at delivering additional GP time.

Asked about falling numbers of GPs in partnership roles, Mr Javid told the committee: 'I do think we are getting to the point where we need to take a fresh look at this. If there are things that are getting in the way of becoming a partner or becoming a salaried GP in a particular practice we need to work out what those are, listen to the GPs and make sure we are reacting.'

Meanwhile, Mr Javid appeared to repeate a claim featured in the controversial GP access plan about GP numbers that was condemned by doctors' leaders as an example of 'misleading' government statements that downplay the extent of the GP workforce crisis.

GPonline reported last month that the access plan said there were 'now over 1,200 more full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs than two years before' based on figures for June 2019 compared with figures for June 2021.

However, the figures include trainees - masking the fact that the fully-qualified FTE GP workforce increased by only 101 over this period. Meanwhile, the fully-qualified FTE GP workforce fell by 986 between March 2016 and March 2021, a 3.4% drop.

The BMA has also hit out at a recent change in methodology that means NHS Digital no longer includes estimated figures for practices that fail to submit data - a move that has made reductions in the GP workforce over the past five or six years look smaller.

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