Health minister repeats 'misleading' claim that GP workforce is growing

A health minister has suggested the government is nearly a third of the way to delivering its promise to increase the general practice workforce by 6,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs - despite numbers of fully-qualified GPs continuing to decline.

Houses of parliament
Houses of parliament: minister's claim questioned (Photo: Shunrei/Getty Images)

In a written question to the government, Labour MP for Stockport Navendu Mishra asked for an update on progress towards the Conservative manifesto promise to increase the FTE GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024.

The question came just weeks after health and social care secretary Sajid Javid admitted that the government was not on track to deliver the promised increase.

Responding to the question, health minister Maria Caulfield wrote: 'In September 2021, there were 1,841 more FTE doctors in general practice compared to September 2019.

GP workforce

'We are working with NHS England and NHS Improvement, Health Education England and the profession to increase the general practice workforce in England. This includes measures on recruitment, addressing the reasons why doctors leave the profession and encouraging them to return to practice.'

However, the figure quoted by Ms Caulfield includes trainee GPs - presenting a picture that BMA leaders have warned masks the fact that the fully-qualified GP workforce actually fell over this period.

Data from NHS Digital show that numbers of fully-qualified FTE GPs fell by 187 between September 2019 and September 2021 - a 1% drop that is in stark contrast to the rise claimed by Ms Caulfield.

Doctors' leaders have hit out at health and social care secretary Sajid Javid for making similar 'misleading' claims - and at the wording of the controversial access plan and support package, which also suggested GP numbers were rising.

Misleading figures

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.

Under the old methodology, fully-qualified FTE GPs fell by more than 500 in the two years to June 2021, and are down by around 1,800 since 2015 - a decline that means each FTE GP is caring for an extra 300 patients on average.

BMA GP committee executive team member Dr Krishna Kasaraneni told GPonline last month that it was time for the government to be honest about the GP workforce.

He said: 'The BMA believes that the government’s interpretation of the GP workforce figures is disingenuous and fails to give an honest assessment of the true picture.

'The bottom line is we are haemorrhaging doctors, not significantly gaining them; we have lost the equivalent of 1,803 full-time, fully-qualified GPs since 2015, despite the government promising 6,000 more. This is the statistic ministers should be using.'

GPonline reported this week that numbers of GP trainees hit record levels again in 2021 - but doctors' leaders have warned that early retirements and doctors reducing their hours in the face of intolerable workload pressures have left the workforce continuing to decline.

Dr Kasaraneni said last month: 'While more younger doctors are choosing to enter general practice, even more are leaving the profession. The government should not be including trainees in the figures they use. This is disingenuous at best and downright misleading at worst. It’s time the government and NHS England are honest about the workforce crisis.'

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