GP workforce up 1% in three months as COVID-19 drives salaried GP surge

The GP workforce grew by more than 1% in the three months to September 2020, official data show - a trend driven almost entirely by a large rise in numbers of salaried GPs since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

GP workforce (Photo: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)
GP workforce (Photo: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)

GP workforce data from NHS Digital show that in September 2020 there were 27,981 fully qualified full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs in England - up 375 (1.4%) compared with June.

Despite the increase in the last quarter, FTE GP numbers remain 334 below the figure for September last year - and 1,421 (4.8%) below the total recorded in September 2015, when former health secretary Jeremy Hunt promised 5,000 more GPs within five years.

The rise in the fully qualified FTE GP workforce between June and September is by far the most significant increase seen at any point in the past five years.

Salaried GPs

However, it is not clear that the change reflects a genuine increase in the GP workforce - as opposed to simply reflecting a sharp rise in GPs shifting from locum work into salaried posts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

GPonline reported earlier this year that as many as 1,000 GPs who previously worked mainly as locums had switched to permanent, salaried posts during the pandemic.

The official GP workforce data have long been considered a poor measure of the true extent of the locum workforce. Sessional GP leaders say there are as many as 17,000 locum GPs working in England - but the official data collected by NHS Digital show only 1,275 in September 2020.

This is because the figures are a snapshot of staff recorded in GP practice IT systems, which under-report locums. However, GPs in permanent roles are counted more accurately - meaning the shift from locum to salaried roles through the eight months of the pandemic is likely to be a major factor behind the surge in the official FTE workforce count.

COVID-19 pandemic

The rise in salaried GP numbers since the start of the pandemic has been marked. A total of 9,126 FTE salaried GPs were recorded in September 2020 - up 455 (5.4%) since the pandemic began in March.

This is a significant acceleration of a trend that has been ongoing over the past five years, driven by GPs quitting partnership roles in large numbers.

In September 2015, 74% of FTE GPs recorded in official figures were partners, while just 23% were salaried. Figures for September 2020 show salaried GPs now make up a third of the FTE workforce, with partners down to just 62%.

While salaried numbers rose in the past three months, the decline in partners continued with the loss of 115 partners between June and September. Almost 1,000 FTE partners have been lost over the past year.

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