Speaking at the NHS Confederation conference - held virtually - GMC chief executive Charlie Massey said that significant workforce challenges were ‘coming round the corner’ as the pandemic takes a toll on health workers.
He warned that the pandemic was likely to drive up numbers of doctors leaving the profession, with many likely to retire due to burnout and exhaustion.
The GMC had already noted an ‘interruption’ to the recruitment of doctors from overseas, Mr Massey told the conference - warning that the NHS could not presume recruitment of doctors from outside the UK would remain at high levels.
The GMC chief executive said: ‘I think we have some quite significant workforce challenges coming around the corner.
‘Simply in terms of numbers...we saw many fewer doctors than normal deciding to retire last year and that of course is something we should applaud, with people wanting to [stay and] support the NHS.
‘But I expect that as we come out of the pandemic and head towards winter there may be many doctors and other healthcare professionals who decide to retire. We will have the impact in terms of people being burnt out and needing a rest.
‘So there is a pinch point coming in terms of there perhaps being fewer doctors in the workforce than we would want.’
He urged NHS leaders to take short-term measures to improve the retention of NHS staff and avoid a potential workforce crisis. ‘All of our data tells us that the things that will help you to decide to stay in the workforce are about creating supportive working environments for people, environments where people feel valued, where they have a sense of belonging.
‘That, I think, is one of the most important imperatives for all of us to think about over the months ahead.’
The stark warning from the GMC chief executive comes just days after MPs warned that NHS workforce planning needed a total overhaul to tackle chronic excessive workload that is driving a rise in burnout among NHS staff.
Pressure created by the pandemic has deepened an NHS workforce crisis that pre-dates the emergence of COVID-19.
A recently published survey revealed that more than a third of GPs overall - and nearly two thirds of those aged over 50 - planned to quit within five years even before the damaging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
GPonline reported last month that the number of full-time equivalent GPs per patient had dropped by 10% over the past five years, as government promises to increase the workforce have failed to materialise.
Alongside the decline in the GP workforce in recent years, workload has risen - and the pandemic has now driven workload to levels even beyond those seen before COVID-19.
GPonline reported last week that the vast majority of GPs say e-consultation systems adopted in the pandemic have driven up workload. Analysis of RCGP data by this website has also shown that GP practices delivered 8% more appointments over the past five weeks than in the same period in 2019 - alongside a third more clinical administrative work.