In November 2021 there were 27,647 fully-qualified FTE GPs in England, down 104 compared with figures for June, data from NHS Digital reveal.
Over the same period, the number of patients registered with general practice in England rose by 478,856 to just over 61.3m - leaving the average FTE GP responsible for 2,218 patients, up 1.2% in just six months.
The BMA's GP committee warned that GPs had been 'stretching themselves thinly' for years, but that this had never been more evident than during the pandemic, with workload continuing to intensify. Deputy chair for England Dr Kieran Sharrock warned that 'doing more with fewer staff is not safe and not sustainable' - and called for long-term solutions to protect an 'exhausted' workforce.
The latest figures highlighting a fall in GP numbers come as MPs urged the government to 'wake up' to the workforce crisis facing the NHS - warning that the crisis pre-dates the pandemic but has been exacerbated by it.
The decline in GP numbers comes at a time when the profession is under intense pressure, with surging demand for appointments, driven in part by long waits for hospital treatment because of the backlog created by COVID-19.
Meanwhile, GPs warned this week that a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant - with more than 183,000 cases confirmed per day on average over the past week - has 'shredded' the general practice workforce, with significant numbers of staff off work and some practices fearing they could be forced to close.
Dr Sharrock said: 'Since September 2015, when the government first pledged to recruit an additional 5,000 GPs, England has lost the equivalent of more than 1,750 full-time, fully-qualified family doctors, with more than 300 being lost in the last year alone.
'This means the remaining GPs are now on average caring for around 300 patients more than they were 2015 and significantly more than GPs in similar countries. For years GPs have been stretching themselves more thinly as the workforce crisis deepens. Never has this been more evident than during the pandemic - and in November practices in England booked a record 34.6m appointments. That’s enough appointments to cover over half the population of England in a single month.'
Dr Sharrock said practices had pulled out all the stops to help deliver the COVID-19 booster and vaccine campaign, and as a result had been forced to reprioritise other care, leaving some patients waiting longer.
He added: 'Unfortunately, we cannot do everything for everyone all of the time. Staff are exhausted, burnt out and putting their own health at risk - which threatens to make the problem far worse. There is then the further impact of absence caused by Omicron in recent weeks - and we cannot afford to lose any more valuable staff at this crucial time.
'In the short term we need to protect staff by providing adequate PPE, ensure access to testing, and lower community COVID-19 transmission to prevent more staff getting sick. In the longer term we need meaningful solutions to the workforce crisis that has blighted general practice for too long.'
Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid admitted in November that the government was not on track to deliver its manifesto commitment to increase the GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024. The BMA has urged the government to be 'honest' over the workforce crisis - hitting out at ministers' use of statistics that include trainees to claim that the GP workforce is rising.