Under an amendment to the Health and Care Bill proposed by former health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt, the government would have been required to report regularly on workforce planning and to demonstrate that it was training and retaining enough staff to meet current and future demand.
However, despite significant cross-party support and backing from more than 60 health and care organisations, the government opposed the admendment and MPs rejected it by 280 votes to 219.
Following the vote, Mr Hunt said the amendment could still gain support in the House of Lords. Meanwhile, he announced that the health and social care select committee he now chairs will launch an inquiry into why staff are leaving the health and social care sectors and how to tackle the problem. The inquiry will also explore NHS workforce recruitment and training.
Alongside an assessment of the key factors driving the crisis, the inquiry will consider potential solutions - including the potential for increased recruitment of doctors and other healthcare staff from overseas, an overhaul of clinical training, increased medical school places for overseas students, and reducing the 'training period for doctors'.
The inquiry will also look at whether there are particularly acute shortages of staff in specific roles and/or in geographical areas and how to tackle them. The focus on regional variations in the crisis comes after CMO Professor Chris Whitty warned earlier this year called for a greater focus on tackling GP shortages in deprived coastal areas.
The proposed amendment on NHS workforce planning came just weeks after current health and social care secretary Sajid Javid admitted that the government was not on track to deliver its manifesto commitment to increase the full-time equivalent GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024.
The BMA estimates that every FTE GP in England is now caring for around 300 more patients on average than in 2015. Meanwhile an RCP census carried out last year found that physician vacancies have hit their highest point in nearly a decade.
Responding to the Commons vote, BMA deputy chair Dr David Wrigley said: 'With widespread support from more than 60 healthcare organisations, expert thinktanks and influential charities - as well as MPs from across the political spectrum - it is deeply disappointing that the Westminster government has squandered this opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to safe staffing in the NHS.
'There are 93,000 overall staff vacancies in the NHS, including a critical shortage of nurses, doctors, and midwives among other colleagues. Additionally, the BMA estimates that the NHS in England needs an additional 50,000 doctors to care for patients and provide safe care. The government must understand the scale of this challenge and meet it with appropriate action.'
Dr Wrigley added that bill going through parliament fell 'woefully short of detail on workforce planning' - and that the rejected amendment could have 'held the government to account - ensuring it regularly assessed how many doctors we need now and in the future'.
He said: 'The NHS is under unprecedented pressure, with record-high waiting lists, and staff exhausted from giving their all during the greatest health emergency of our lifetimes as patients continue to suffer significant harm due to understaffing. We therefore need a credible workforce plan that guarantees we’re recruiting - and keeping - the right number and the right kind of staff.'
Health and Care Bill
Announcing the workforce inquiry, Mr Hunt said: 'We are facing a workforce crisis in health and social care of such proportions that it risks undermining every plan to tackle the backlog, meet the demands of an ageing population, and fix social care.
'It is deeply disappointing that the government yesterday rejected the chance to overhaul workforce planning to make sure we are training enough doctors and nurses for the future so this new inquiry will look in detail at every aspect of staff training, recruitment and retention to help make the momentum for change unstoppable.
'Welcome though the new funding for the NHS is, without staff to spend it on we risk disappointing patients and demoralising staff.'
In a statement outlining the scope of the inquiry, the select committee said that evidence showed 'poor workforce planning, weak policy and fragmented responsibilities as contributing to a workforce crisis, exacerbated by the lack of a national NHS workforce strategy'.
Estimates suggest that by 2030/31 close to half a million extra healthcare staff may be needed to meet rising demand and manage the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.