The comments appeared to signal a softening of the government’s pledge which was criticised as unrealistic by GPs during the election campaign. GP leaders have said the government has failed to demonstrate how it will attract so many new GPs.
Responding to Mr Hunt's comments GPC chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said he was glad the health secretary was beginning to accept the need to be more realistic about GP recruitment and called on him to rethink plans for seven-day GP services. But DH said it remained comitteed to the 5,000 GPs target.
Speaking at the Commissioning 2015 conference in east London on Wednesday Mr Hunt said: ‘I talked about recruiting 5,000 more GPs on Friday. In truth we think that that is the maximum that we would be able to increase the GP workforce by over the next five years given the time it takes to train new GPs, given the potential number we could persuade to come back into the profession.’
Mr Hunt admitted that even more capacity was required in primary care. Last week he promised to boost the workforce by 10,000 new clinicians, with new pharmacists, nurses and physician associates on top of the election commitment to 5,000 GPs.
The secretary of state’s latest comments will be seen as a recognition of the difficulty of recruiting and training 5,000 GPs in five years.
Dr Nagpaul said increasing the workforce was vital, 'but we do need to be realistic about the number of GPs we can recruit in a short timeframe. Delivering 5,000 extra GPs in five years when training a GP takes ten years was a practical impossibility that was never going to be achieved.'
He added: 'We are glad that after pressure from the BMA, the secretary of state is beginning to accept that we need to be more realistic about GP recruitment. With such a limited workforce he now needs to rethink his plans for seven day services which cannot be practically delivered with the current shrinking number of GPs.
GP recruitment crisis
'There must also be serious steps taken to address the fundamental reasons why doctors do not want to be GPs, including delivering real and sustained investment to struggling practices, countering the negative stereotypes of GPs, reducing the burden of bureaucracy and enabling GPs to spend more time with their patients.'
A DH spokeswoman said the government refuted that the target had been waterered down and remained committed to the pledge.
RCGP vice chairwoman and workforce lead professor Amanda Howe told GPonline earlier this month that the government’s aim was achievable.
The 10-point plan on GP recruitment,retention and returners launched by NHS England, HEE, the RCGP and the BMA in January set out an effective strategy, said Professor Howe. ‘If you stack that up, like a really systematic operational plan, you have got some chance of getting some of those numbers in,' she said. ‘I know that government hasn't put flesh on that yet. That's what we have to help them do, and everybody needs to rally together.’