Net increase in GP workforce 'several years' off, admits NHS chief

A net expansion in the GP workforce may take 'several years' to deliver, the NHS England chief executive has told MPs.

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens (Photo: Alex Deverill)
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens (Photo: Alex Deverill)

At a House of Commons health and social care committee meeting on Monday, Simon Stevens told MPs that work was already underway to put ‘flesh on the bones’ of plans to tackle the current NHS workforce crisis under the long-term plan.

Plans to boost the GP workforce will see NHS England's Targeted Enhanced Recruitment Scheme (TERS) expanded to more hard-to-recruit areas in 2019/20 and £22m of Health Education England (HEE) funding ploughed into community 'education hubs', MPs heard.

The TERS programme offers GP trainees a £20,000 ‘golden hello’ payment when they agree to take up postings in hard-to-recruit areas. GPonline reported last week that the scheme had successfully doubled recruitment efforts in under-doctored areas such as Cumbria, Blackpool and Hull following 100% uptake in 2018/19.

GP workforce

When pushed by Andrew Selous MP to give a specific timeframe for when the NHS will start to see ‘a net increase in the GP workforce’, Mr Stevens said it could take several years.

Mr Stevens said: ‘We’re seeing a couple of things happening aren’t we… We’re seeing this upturn in the number of new doctors coming into general practice and of course we’ve got an increase in the number of overall doctors coming through.'

He added that if this enthusiasm for general practice was ‘sustained’ and some of the factors resulting in early retirements were ‘dealt with’, then he would hope to see an overall increase in the number of GPs ‘within the next several years’.

Committee member Johnny Mercer MP said that it was still proving ‘very difficult’ to recruit GPs - whether trainees or fully-qualified - in his constituency of Plymouth Moor View.

Mr Mercer said: ‘In the short-term, why don’t you just pay [GPs] a bit more? Why don’t you incentivise them through their pay packet to go to some of these really difficult areas to try and get a handle on what some people would perceive to be almost a crisis level of GPs?’

The Conservative MP said his constituency was 30 GPs short, but that a recent 'massive recruiting surge' had delivered only an extra two doctors.

Responding to this, Mr Stevens said: ‘We have been offering £20,000 bursaries for trainees to work in practices that have historically had difficulty filling those places... That has been very successful in the part of the country where its been tried so we are looking to expand that, yes. And I’ll take that as a bid for Plymouth!’

Mr Selous argued training budget cuts may have contributed to older GPs leaving the profession. ‘GPs at the moment are concerned about the training budget for all - the practice nurses, the physios and all the rest of the team in primary care. They don’t think that’s there and that, they say, is very critical to help them do their job and is quite a big part - because it’s not there - of the reason why so many are leaving.’

Community education hubs

HEE chief executive Professor Ian Cumming told the committee: ‘Certainly over the last few years that budget has reduced in real terms. We have, however, increased it by 50% from last year to this year and we are seeking to be able to put more resource into that next year.

‘We have also just last week agreed to put £22m into funding community education hubs that allow education and training to be delivered for groups of GP practices around particular localities, because it is much harder to deliver education in the community than it is in hospital, for example, where you have everyone working in the same place. So by bringing GP practices and community providers together into a hub for ongoing education and training development - which we’ve committed to fund - it allows the community workforce to have access to same level of education and training as their hospital counterparts.’

A new workforce implementation plan, outlined in the long-term plan, is expected to be set out in full alongside the government budget later this year. However, NHS Improvement chief executive Ian Dalton confirmed that an interim report on workforce would be published in March, with some implementations  'kicking off' in April.

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