The shortage of GPs facing the NHS is now 'so serious that it cannot be filled at all' according to a report by the Health Foundation, the King's Fund and the Nuffield Trust.
The health service in England currently has 'more than 2,500 fewer FTE GPs than it needs'. In five years' time this gap will widen to 7,000 FTE GPs if current trends continue and by 2028/29 the NHS faces a shortfall of 11,500 FTE GPs, the think tanks warn.
The report is clear that the government's target of adding 5,000 FTE GPs to the workforce will not be acheived 10 years from now - let alone by the original 2020/21 deadline set by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Current health secretary Matt Hancock has already rowed back from his predecessor's workforce pledge - dropping the 2020/21 deadline and promising instead that 5,000 more FTE GPs will be delivered 'as soon as possible'.
The warning over NHS recruitment from the think tanks comes just weeks after the latest official GP workforce data showed that FTE GP numbers had fallen slightly over the past year.
Despite the bleak outlook for GP recruitment, the report suggests that supply can be extended to meet demand a decade from now with a radical shift towards greater skill mix, with pharmacists, physios and other healthcare staff used 'much more widely and routinely in and alongside general practice'.
The report warns: 'The only way forward is to make substantial progress towards a new model of general practice with an expanded multidisciplinary team drawing on the skills of other healthcare professionals.
'The new GP contract and the NHS long-term plan support this shift, but the key issue is the speed, consistency and quality of implementation across the NHS. The workforce implementation plan needs to clearly outline how this model will be rolled out safely across the country, and at pace.'
Experts from the Nuffield Trust, the King’s Fund and the Health Foundation warn that the NHS will need a £900m increase in the annual budget for training and developing healthcare workers in England by 2023/24 to build the workforce it needs.
Health Foundation director of research and economics Anita Charlesworth said: 'The workforce is the make or break issue for the health service and unless staffing shortages are substantially reduced the recent NHS long-term plan can only be a wish list.'
King's Fund chief executive Richard Murray said: 'Patients are facing longer delays for NHS treatment as services struggle to recruit and retain enough staff. Without radical action to expand the NHS workforce, there is a very real risk that some of the extra funding pledged by the government will go unspent, waiting lists will continue to grow and important improvements to services like mental health and general practice will fail.'
Nuffield Trust director of workforce strategy Candace Imison said: 'The imminent workforce plan needs to mark the moment we stop treating the staffing of health and social care as a second order issue. Our recommendations might seem radical, but the time for tinkering at the margins has passed.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'We agree with the writers of this report that the GP workforce faces significant challenges but we disagree that these are insurmountable. We must not, under any circumstances, give up on our aims and endeavours to build the GP workforce – achieving these is vital for the future of the NHS, and patient care.
'The NHS long-term plan has aspirations that will benefit patients, but it will need the right workforce to deliver it, and that includes at least 5,000 more family doctors.
'The forthcoming NHS workforce strategy does need to include plans to expand the multi-disciplinary team in general practice. But it is imperative that it also includes comprehensive plans to further boost GP recruitment, make it easier for trained GPs to return to NHS practice, and to keep existing GPs in the profession longer.
'Taking steps to reduce workload to make working in general practice more sustainable and removing incentives to retire early for GPs who might not necessarily want to, would be sensible places to start.'